What Did People Use To Sweeten Food Before Honey?

The first evidence of humans eating honey dates back to 8000 B.C.E., according to the American Society of Overseas Research. Cave paintings in Europe, India, and Africa show humans gathering wild honey from bees' nests. These prehistoric paintings indicate that humans had already begun refining the process: some depict figures smoking hives to avoid being stung.

The ancient Egyptians were likely the first to cultivate honey around 2500 B.C.E. They refined the production process to mass-produce honey in clay hives. Later, in Greece and Rome, scientists, physicians, and philosophers studied beekeeping and extolled the virtues of honey, which was used medicinally.

While refined sugar now dominates, honey is still a wildly popular sweetener. According to a report from the University of California Agricultural Center, Americans consumed 596 million pounds of honey in 2017 — a whopping 1.82 pounds per capita. Roughly half of our honey consumption comes from manufactured foods that use honey as a sweetener.

However, honey hasn't always been available worldwide. In cultures without honey bees, humans invented other processes to get their sugar fix.

Before honey, people got sugar from syrups and fruits

Honeybees are not native to the Americas — they were introduced from Europe in the 17th century, per USGS. However, American Indians still found ways to sweeten their food. Indian Country Today reports that Native Americans developed many of the sweeteners that we use today, including corn and maple syrup.

But our ancestors enjoyed sugar long before they discovered honey or natural syrups. According to Insider, our love of sugar stems from our primate ancestors' fruit-heavy diets. Over time, primates evolved to prefer riper fruits due to their high sugar content, which supplied more energy. University of Colorado professor Richard Johnson theorizes that, during a period of global cooling 15 million years ago that left food scarce, a mutation occurred that helped our ancestor's bodies store sugar as fat, so those who ate sugary foods were more likely to survive in times of famine.

However, our bodies did not evolve to process the amount of sugar in the modern diet.

"For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare," Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, told The New York Times.

While our bodies need some types of sugar, the American Heart Association states that we can function just fine without added sugars. If you want to cut back your sugar consumption, consider turning to fruit to satisfy your cravings — just like our earliest ancestors.