When you think of honey, you probably think of bees, or tea, or maybe that ever-hungry bear Winnie the Pooh. One thing that probably doesn’t jump to mind, however, is energy. Yet lately honey is gaining quite a reputation as an energy food and is being used to pump up everything from sports drinks to power bars and gels. Much of the interest follows a recent study suggesting that honey’s relatively low glycemic index helps sustain energy levels more than other sugars, making it a smart choice for athletes or anyone looking for a natural energy boost.

One company hip to honey’s get-up-and-go capabilities is Dutch Gold Honey, now the nation’s largest independent honey packer, founded by family patriarch Ralph Gamber back in 1946. But the path by which the then 30-year-old stumbled upon the power of the golden goo is a bit unusual: Gamber had a heart attack.

A beekeeper is born
When Gamber suffered a near-fatal coronary at 30, his doctor had an unlikely prescription: To help regain his strength, Gamber was to take 2 tablespoons of honey with each of his meals. The doctor also recommended that Gamber find a hobby to help reduce stress, which, as a wholesale grocery salesman with a tenacious work ethic, may have been a contributing health factor. A few weeks later, Gamber followed his doctor’s orders and picked up three beehives at a barn sale for $27. Beekeeping was to be his new hobby.

Not one for dabbling, Gamber threw himself into beekeeping as doggedly as he approached all his tasks. Before long, the family was up to its elbows in honey. “We would extract the honey in the garage, and then mother would strain it through cheesecloth in a pitcher and bottle it,” recalls Ralph Gamber’s son, Bill Gamber II, who would eventually take over the family business. “Then my sister Marianne would go through the neighborhood and sell it.”

By the early 1950s, the family had acquired 300 hives, and business was buzzing. The only problem was that the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, farmland near Gamber’s home was grain and dairy country, not bee country, with few of the wildflowers that make for productive hives. Gamber simply wasn’t producing enough honey to satisfy demand. Realizing he had found a profitable commodity, however, Gamber decided to stick with honey but focus on packing and selling the product rather than producing it himself. He sold his hives, began acquiring honey from the clover and alfalfa fields of the Dakotas, and built a “honey house,” a small processing and packaging plant, across the street from the family home.

Gamber’s hunch was right: Today, Dutch Gold produces 50 million pounds of honey each year, including certified organic honey from Mexico and Brazil (for more on organic honey, see “In Search of Organic Honey.”).

The next generation
For years after Bill Gamber II took over, the company hummed along. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the family’s next business idea began to take flight.

Bill II and beekeeper and longtime business associate John Miller began batting around ways to sell honey-based energy products. Miller, a frequent marathoner, had been nursing the idea since eating his first sports gel a few years earlier. He concluded that a honey-based gel would taste better and digest more easily. Bill II, for his part, was eager to revive an earlier scheme of his father’s. Back in 1955, Ralph Gamber had designed 1-ounce honey pouches for a local wrestling team and developed a honey-based energy bar he named “En-R-G Foods,” but the products, which he had hoped to market as energy food for college athletes, never took off.

A study at Baylor University found that honey is an effective carbohydrate gel to ingest just prior to exercise.

Bill seized the moment to dust off his father’s old plan when in 2000, a study at the Baylor University Exercise and Sports Nutrition Laboratory, sponsored by the National Honey Board, showed that honey is an effective carbohydrate gel to ingest just prior to exercise. With little knowledge of the outdoor sports market, Bill II asked his son, Bill III, a sports enthusiast living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to help him devise a business plan. The team added Hershey’s food scientist Bob Stahl to the mix and got to work.

Consulting with sports nutritionists, Stahl developed the gels and bars, adding potassium and sodium for electrolytes and B vitamins to help with recovery. With beekeeper Miller’s help, he found a mild honey with a mix of sugars that digests easily and doesn’t break down too quickly in the body or burn the throat. Once Stahl had developed a prototype, Bill III took over the brand, testing it on the ultimate outdoor-sports focus group: his fellow athletes in Steamboat. The results were very encouraging. “I would say the most common response that we hear is ‘Wow, somebody should have done this before,’” says Bill III.

The first Honey Stinger gels rolled into stores in the spring of 2003; the product can be found in independent natural products stores, as well as REI, EMS, and athletic specialty shops all over the country. There’s also talk of expanding into larger natural grocery chains soon. Bill III oversees the day-to-day business of the company with another partner, Rich Hager, while his dad serves in a more advisory role. The owners are excited about all the positive feedback their product is generating. “We’re a new company that focuses on active people and healthy lifestyles,” says Bill III proudly. “We have a loyal following already—and the word is just getting out.” Can’t you hear the buzz?

Hannah Nordhaus’ work has been published in numerous publications including the Financial Times, The Village Voice, and SKI magazine.