The honey substitute you didn't know you've been eating
I came into work the other day to find a single-serving packet of Sopapilla Syrup sitting on my keyboard. Hmm, Sopapilla Syrup. What is this stuff? The ingredients are printed right on the packet: High fructose corn syrup, sugar, honey, corn syrup, natural flavor, caramel color. Good God. Fake honey.
Before you get your Lobos boxers in a knot about this insidious plot, you might be interested to hear that you've probably been eating Sopapilla Syrup for months, maybe years, without knowing the difference. And even though high-fructose corn syrup is probably worse for you than honey, in the grand scheme of things, they're both sugar and they'll both rot your teeth out and make you fat.
Albuquerque-based Sun Country Chile & Honey Products makes Sopapilla Syrup; they also sell locally-produced honey. Working late one night, I called the number on the packet, hoping the voicemail might tell me what time they open in the morning. But I got a real person on the phone. A real, nice person who helped me understand what this stuff is all about. My informant said I could quote him, but didn't want his name used. I'll call him John.
If you've been to Garduños, Little Anitas, La Hacienda, or pretty much any New Mexican restaurant, you've probably had Sopapilla Syrup. That stuff in the clear plastic squeeze bottles? More and more often it's this stuff, a blend of corn syrup and honey. Why haven't people staged protests? Why aren't they rioting in the streets? Well, they probably haven't noticed. The stuff tastes a lot like honey.
The reason restaurants are substituting Sopapilla Syrup for honey are simple: Honey is expensive and it's something they give away for free. As John explained to me, "Honey, even wholesale, costs $18 or $20 a gallon. ... You just can't put $4.50 in front of a kid to squeeze out all over the place. ... You can just envision being a restaurant owner. You're working 50 hours a week and still not making a lot of money and there's a 4-year-old pouring honey on the floor. And then you gotta pay a guy to go clean it up. And then you gotta take a call from some guy complaining about 'It's not real honey!'"
At this point I had to admit to John that I had been one of those people, making one of those calls. John said Sun Country gets the occasional call, too. "Most of the time it's a message: ’How dare you sell me something that's not 100 percent honey. "First," John said he tells angry callers, "I doubt if someone sold it to you, they probably gave it to you!"
Even though I used to work in restaurants, the honey thing had never occurred to me. Lots of restaurants give you sopas with your meal, but even when you have to pay for them, the honey comes free.
"Couldn't the restaurants charge for honey?" I asked the Sopapilla Syrup maker. And he said sure they could. But we both agreed that it would probably make for more angry customers than substituting honey for something cheaper that tastes almost the same.
"The flavors in honey can differ a lot, depending on what flowers the bees fed on," John told me. "So there's more variation in pure honey products. You can get honey from very sweet to almost tart, but our Sopapilla Syrup is kind of middle-of-the-road. If you put the two side by side, you probably could tell the difference, but on its own? No."
I tried the taste-test myself, squeezing the little packet into my mouth, followed by a squirt from the little plastic bear I found next to our coffee machine. The syrup really does look and taste like honey, at least at first. As the immediate hit of honey flavor fades, it is gradually replaced by a more generic Karo Syrup sweetness, then a touch of caramel at the end. But if you're mid-conversation over breakfast, the difference probably wouldn't register on your tongue's radar. By contrast, our honey bear's generic store-brand honey actually had less of a honey kick, but what flavor it did have was consistent and lasting.
In short, restaurants should label their squeeze bottles Sopapilla Syrup if they're not serving pure honey. It's the honest thing to do. Patrons should feel free to ask if the stuff in the clear bottle is honey or something else. If it's not honey, and that bothers you, let the manager know you want real honey. But don't be mad when they start charging you for your side of honey.