Plymouth, Minn. — Katie Sanchez was trying to make apple jelly. She made a mistake — which turned into a thick sugar that tastes like honey.

After two years of product development, Sanchez just turned out 3,000 bottles of the accidental Bee-Free Honee for Whole Foods Market in the Twin Cities. And she’s negotiating with other specialty food markets to sell her all-natural sweetener.

Not quite jelly

Years ago, Sanchez decided to attempt apple jelly after a day of picking apples. She soon realized that she forgot to add pectin, a thickening agent, but jarred it anyway. When she tasted the jelly, it was like honey.

Sanchez was a pastry chef, but left the baking industry after her son was born with special needs. She couldn’t work the long hours and took an office job, but continued baking on

her own.

She wondered if there might be an interest in her apple “honey.” An orchard manager told her about AURI, and Sanchez began working with Charan Wadhawan, AURI’s food scientist in Crookston. “Charan took me through the steps and made the whole process a lot less scary,” Sanchez says.

Bee-Free Honee is slightly tart, made by hand from a variety of apples, with a little lemon juice and sugar added. Just as honey’s taste varies, depending on the flowers bees visit, Bee-Free honee varies by the apple mixture used.

Like honey, Bee-Free doesn’t have to be refrigerated and has a one-year shelf life. It’s a good substitute for toddlers who, specialists recommend, should not be fed honey until age two. Sanchez says she could have used this product as a pasty chef, as it’s not as strong as maple syrup and allows subtle flavors to come through.

Help is Sweet

“It is an all-natural product that will help fill the honey shortage,” from decreasing bee populations, Wadhawan says. A survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the Agricultural Research Service showed a 33 percent loss in managed honeybee colonies nationwide, from October 2009 to April 2010. The beekeepers surveyed said starvation, poor weather and weak colonies going into winter were primary reasons for the mortalities.

Wadhawan helped Sanchez standardize and scale up her product’s formula and production process. The AURI scientist assisted with nutritional analysis, labeling, trouble-shooting and a shelf-life study.

Wadhawan also connected Sanchez to Minnestalgia Foods in McGregor, Minn., which manufactures and packages jelly, syrup and barbeque sauces. The business includes Minnestalgia Winery, which makes wines from native fruit, wild berries and honey. Sanchez wanted to use local products to produce and package Bee-Free Honee. Minnestalgia was “unbelievable in helping me work through problems,” Sanchez says.

“This product is a great alternative to conventional honey,” Sanchez says. It can be used in equal proportions and “tastes much like honey.”