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The Hindu Explains | Is there anything called ‘pure honey’, and how is honey tested?

7th December, 2020 POLITY AND GOVERNANCE

The story so far: The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) 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 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.
  • India’s food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), published a new set of regulations called the ‘Revised Standards of Honey’.
  • Nowhere has it defined 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 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.

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.
  • 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 most common parameters for a product to be certified as honey 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.
  • 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.

What did the CSE probe find?

  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy technology is increasingly being applied in food chemistry to unravel the chemical structure of food and detect the presence of additives more efficiently than routine, lab-based chemical tests.
  • The NMR test is not mandatory in India, but it is necessary for export purposes.
  • The NMR method relies on establishing a reference database of honey profiles — characteristics of sugar, pollen, oligosaccharides, pollen, etc.— from different geographic profiles.
  • The CSE established that sugar syrups from China were availabe that could cheat the C4, C3 and oligosaccharides tests, but it is not known why exactly the ten brands failed the NMR test.