Lab-Made Honey Tastes Like the Real Deal. Is That a Good Thing?

·7 min read

As a journalist covering food tech, many of the ingredients in my fridge sound fictional. Eggs made from peas, burgers made from kelp, milk made with non-animal whey protein. And then there was the one I held in my hand last Sunday morning: a small black jar of “honey” made entirely without bees in MeliBio’s Oakland food lab. I quickly threw some bread in the toaster and grabbed almond butter from the pantry. As the bread toasted I dipped the wrong end of a spoon into the nectar. It was uncanny: a sticky-spreadable consistency and light amber color. I licked a dollop off the metal handle—delicate and flowery, just like clover honey—before smearing it on toast with the almond butter. With each bite I grew more convinced that this vegan honey was as tasty as the real thing.

Honeybees have a huge negative effect on biodiversity, says Darko Mandich, MeliBio’s cofounder and CEO, who spent years supplying American retailers with European honey. They’re pushing out other bees to the degree that in the near future we may have only honeybees left, he says. Honeybees, which are driven back and forth around the country in wooden boxes to ensure maximum pollination, became the preeminent choice of farmers and beekeepers because they could be domesticated and they’re the only pollinator that produces honey. However, honeybees actually visit only a fraction of plants that need pollination. Wild and native bees ensure that the entire natural ecosystem thrives, but they’re competing for available fodder–the pollen and nectar found in nature that sustains insects–with an arguably bigger community.

Globally, honey is a $9 billion dollar industry. Despite being an agricultural powerhouse, the U.S. imports about 70% of its honey supply from countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Vietnam. That comes with an invisible cost: Honey is one of the top three fraudulent products shipped around the world, right behind olive oil and milk. Because of its simple composition, it can be easily diluted with plain sugar or other sweetened syrups—a cheap way to make it go further.

MeliBio’s honey is made from two key steps. First, pure sugars—fructose and glucose, the same ones found in honey—are sourced from fruits and vegetables. Then MeliBio scientists mimic the flavor of honey by collecting compounds from the same plants that bees would normally visit—such as hibiscus, squash blossom, and olive leaf—and combining them with the sugary syrup. To get the profile just right, MeliBio performs sensory panels with taste testers and works with honey sommeliers. “It took 300 different formulations to get to the current version,” says Aaron Schaller, the CTO and cofounder of MeliBio.

Often people talk about local honey’s ability to confer increased immunity, which comes from the idea that we’re ingesting the same local flora as honeybees. MeliBio’s honey isn’t hyper-local—although ingredients are sourced mostly from the U.S.—but it contains some of the same antioxidants found in traditional honey. In addition to being vegan, Mandich and Schaller point out that their lab-made version doesn’t contain Clostridium bacteria, a toxin found in honey that keeps it from being consumed by new moms and babies.

Bee-less honey might look and taste like its muse, critics aren’t convinced it will reverse our reliance on honeybees.

When we think of honeybees, we’re most likely imagining a yellow and black striped body with big black eyes; the species that was originally brought over from Europe in the 17th century. But there are over 20,000 known bee species around the world, 4,000 of them native to the U.S. And while bee-less honey might look and taste like its muse, critics aren’t convinced it will reverse our reliance on honeybees. “We need honeybees to pollinate our crops, and those bees are still going to make honey,” says Alison McAfee, a postdoctoral fellow at North Carolina State University and author of The Problem With Honey Bees. Wild bees need our help, but it’s not a sure thing that honey from a lab is the answer. They “have to fend for themselves against whatever challenges humans and nature throw at them, like diseases, pesticides, or extreme weather,” says McAfee.

Still, chefs around the country are fawning over MeliBio’s honey. Dan Rothman, the NYC corporate executive chef at The Butcher’s Daughter, a plant-based restaurant in New York and Los Angeles, spied the honey on LinkedIn before ordering a jar. As soon as it arrived, he dipped a spoon in and did the classic honey twist. “I licked it off and was completely jazzed by it,” he says.

Last winter Rothman used it in a honey, garlic, and chili glaze on roasted brussels sprouts, topped with toasted hemp seeds. Now he’s using the same delicious glaze on sugar snap peas with pea tendrils and shaved radish. “My guests can’t believe it’s vegan honey,” he says. The only problem is supply. MeliBio is making about 2,000 lbs of honey a week, which is primarily sent out as samples across the country for feedback. Until he’s able to buy in bulk, Rothman says he’s “chomping at the bit to unleash it fully.”

In Williamsburg bee-free honey is a new staple at Little Choc Apothecary, a vegan and gluten-free crêperie. “It was  a dream to have honey at our place,” says Elena Beresneva, the managing partner and a former chef. “We use agave, but it lacks the honey texture and clover taste,” she says. But when Beresneva tried MeliBio, she couldn’t tell the difference. “We made baklava crêpes and people were going nuts about it,” she says.

Other restaurants are catching on to lab-made honey’s improved sustainability, because it’s made in the U.S. and could supplant the need for importing the sweet treat. The startup is in talks with chefs and restaurant groups around the country, including Matthew Kenney Cuisine in Los Angeles, Scen in New York, and Baia in San Francisco. And in honor of World Bee Day on May 20, MeliBio hosted a four-course lunch at Eleven Madison Park, which featured its honey in dishes like spring onion broth, crispy chickpea panisse, and marinated white asparagus.

Will we still be able to enjoy one of nature’s most delightful foods knowing it was engineered in a lab?

The second time I tasted MeliBio’s honey was at Future Food-Tech: San Francisco in March 2022. I was on stage for a cooking demo with Mandich and Schaller. Tim Wong, the executive chef at Meta, was standing next to me. For the demo Schaller made cornbread using vegan butter and subbed the sugar with honey. On top he drizzled MeliBio’s latest creation: hot honey spiced with aji limo rojo chile peppers. Wong thought the honey was great. “I like the heat, just a little touch to give a flavor profile to the cornbread,” he told the audience.

Bee-free honey is tasty, and it’s a win for vegans and new moms. But whether or not it could solve complex food system problems, like pollinator biodiversity, remains unclear. Still, there’s appetite for this tech-driven alternative: the startup has raised $7.2 million from investors who see this as climate positive. And the brand dreams of helping companies like Kind use its bee-free honey in their bars or General Mills in making vegan Honey Nut Cheerios.

But McAfee wonders: Will we still be able to enjoy one of nature’s most delightful foods knowing it was engineered in a lab? “The fact that honeybees can gather so much nectar from different places, put it in their neat little combs, and ripen it for long term storage, all before we get to enjoy it in our tea and cereal is a near-magical feat.”

In my experience, that same surprise and delight can come from science too. We needn’t pit one sweet nectar over the other, but rather consider bee-less honey a solution that may be additive to our lives. I’m not vegan yet, but the deeper into food tech my reporting takes me, the more possible it seems. In the meantime I have all the ingredients to whip up that spicy, delicious, “honey’-drenched cornbread.

Larissa Zimberoff is a bay area journalist and the author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit