The honey industry and its bittersweet reality
What does ‘pure honey’ mean and why does the recent report flagging adulteration by popular brands matter?
The story so far: The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) last week released results of an investigation it had conducted into the quality of honey being produced in India. It reported that products by many popular brands were not honey, and, in fact, had been spiked with added sugar. Therefore, they ought not to be branded and sold as honey. The CSE also showed that adulteration technology had become sophisticated and there were commercial products available which are designed to cheat the tests that Indian food testing laboratories conduct to ascertain the purity of honey.
Is there anything called ‘pure honey’?
Over millennia, ‘honey’ was what bees made from plant nectar and people only just squeezed out the contents of honey combs, scrubbed it clean of bees, pollen and other visible residues. This is honey that is either sourced from wild bees or domesticated bees in apiaries. However, none of this constitutes ‘pure honey’, because it is a marketing term and a superficial phrase that masks the complexity that is ‘honey’. India’s food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in July published a new set of regulations — the third in three years — called the ‘Revised Standards of Honey’. Nowhere does one find the term ‘pure honey’ in it. However, given that the adulteration of honey with added sugar is a global problem, the regulations listed the chemical contents, i.e., tolerable limits of ‘impurities’ that must be detected by specific tests for a batch of honey presented by a company for labelling to earn the right to market its product as honey. ‘Honey’ is then classified as either ‘Blossom’ or ‘Nectar Honey’, which is what comes from nectar of plants, or ‘Honeydew’, which comes mainly from excretions of plant-sucking insects ( Hemiptera) on the living parts of plants. The honey that is ultimately made available can be a combination of these and can differ widely in ‘honey profiles’. There are at least 300 recognised types of honey.
How is honey tested?
Honey is primarily a complex of the fructose, glucose and sucrose sugars. It has a relatively high fructose content, which is why it is sweeter than commercial sugar, which is heavier on sucrose. The latter also breaks down less easily. Laboratory tests determine acceptable ratios of these sugars and tolerance limits. There is also a tolerance for ‘ash’ content and HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural), which forms when honey is heated. HMF is actually toxic for bees.
The reason a wide range of chemical variety is allowed is because different flowers have varying characteristics of nectar and express different chemical compounds that are sensitive to light, temperature and geography. Therefore, it is possible to have raw honey that may be less sweet or high on sucrose, or is lighter or darker. Researchers in New Zealand have reported that raw honey from the manuka tree, which is believed to have medicinal qualities, is known to fail a standard test called the C4 test. Then, there are minimal levels of pollen count and foreign oligosaccharides that a quantity of honey must have. All of these have a broad tolerance range and are also influenced by the laboratory tests employed to detect them. Apiaries are known to feed beehives with sugar (sucrose) to stimulate production, and this, too, can influence the honey profile. But whether this makes the honey ‘raw’ is an open question. In all, there are 18 parameters for a product to be certified as honey. The most common are the so-called C4 and C3 tests, that determine if sugar from corn, sugarcane or rice was used to adulterate honey.
Why does spiked honey matter?
Honey typifies ‘natural sweetness’. The enzymes that bees use to make honey out of plant nectar render it rich in antioxidants, amino acids and other products that give honey its medicinal properties. This is why honey is part of traditional medicine and has been promoted as an immune system stimulant, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The addition of artificial sugar syrups reduces the concentration of these elements per gram of honey. As a sweetener, honey is digested more easily than sucrose-heavy sugars, but it spikes blood sugar levels the same way commercial sugar does. Therefore, responsibly sourced honey poses similar risks to diabetics as ordinary sugar.