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Sweet Sensation

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America’s vaunted sweet tooth hasn’t disappeared in this era of health-conscious eating, but more consumers are opting to sweeten their cereal, beverages and homemade baked goods with honey rather than sugar, as research emerges to suggest a host of nutritional benefits linked to the ancient food.

According to Nielsen, for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2008, dollar sales of honey in U.S. food stores went up 9.8 percent, on top of a 4.4 percent increase in 2007, while units grew 1.9 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively.
 
Honey suppliers explain, however, that along with greater consumer interest, this uptick in sales is the result of a shortage – and consequent price spike of over 50 percent in the past year – due largely to the baffling Colony Collapse Disorder, which has reduced the bee population in the United States and other parts of the World.
 
Jim Powell, VP of sales and marketing for Sue Bee Honey, the branded product name for Sioux City, Iowabased Sioux Honey Association, the world’s largest honey marketingorganisation, attributes growth in the segment to “a shorter world supply and increased consumer demand due to Sue Bee Honey’s increased educational efforts regarding the benefits of honey in both nutritional and beauty/health [applications].” These efforts are part of a yearlong promotion program at retail, including promotion dollars, FSIs, on-pack coupons, in-store signs and tie-ins with NASCAR, and film and television projects such as “The Apprentice,” “Bee Movie” and, most recently, “The Secret Life of Bees.”
 
Aside from trusted brands’ light, mild varieties, such as clover honey– which Powell says accounts for about 75 percent of all honey sold in the United States – indications are that U.S. shoppers are starting to explore gourmet offerings and more exotic flavourings.
 
“There are more gourmet products on the market now than there have ever been, highlighting the fact that consumers are more educated about the benefits of honey in cooking and beauty,” observes Powell, although he adds that such items are “still somewhat limited” in the mainstream market. Organic honey has also seen a “major upward movement” in sales, he Notes. 
 
“People are enjoying the small luxury of upscale teas, and accordingly want to put in higher-quality honeys, as well as move away from sugar,” explains Esther Luongo Psarakis, managing partner of Bridgewater, N.J.-based Demeter’s Pantry/ Taste of Crete, LLC, an importer of eight varietals of raw honey from various regions of Greece, among other products. “In addition, people are becoming more experimental with trying single-varietal honeys from different locales.”
 
Alan Turanski, operations manager of Eugene, Ore.-based Glory- Bee Foods, Inc., believes the rise of high-end honey products is part of a general trend. “[M]ore gourmet products are hitting the market, and this includes honey,” he says.
 
Additionally, Sue Bee’s Powell points to the growing popularity of such flavours as orange, sage, wildflower and buckwheat in honey, but general interest in rarer varieties hasn’t been detected everywhere: Jim Phillips of Waxahachie, Texas-based Burleson’s Honey, Inc. says his company has “seen very little movement in varietal honey” in the mainstream supermarket channel as yet, although speciality stores and restaurants have made requests.
 
A major consideration – some might say challenge – for the honey category, however, is cost, which might keep some otherwise interested shoppers from buying. Although Powell concedes that price is “always a factor in honey consumption,” citing such cost drivers as organic and imported product, he says that since “[h]oney is an impulse item that sells extremely well when promoted properly,” yearround promotion stressing the food’s “endless applications” is key, along with competitive pricing.
 
After all, he adds, “There is always a good time to promote a product that is healthy and, most of all, delicious.”