Is your honey authentic?

Honey is widely consumed, as a result of its sweet taste, unique flavour and many health benefits. However, its high price tag and the increasing demand for honey has resulted in considerable food-fraud risk. With honey being the third-most faked food in the world, how can you be sure that your honey is authentic? Employing guidance from regulations, recent scientific publications and honey fraud trends, FACTS offers a variety of honey authenticity tests to put your mind at ease.

Background

Climate change has led to a significant decrease in the number of bee colonies (known as ‘colony collapse disorder’), which has decreased honey production. Furthermore, consumers have become more aware of the (perceived) health benefits of honey, which has increased honey demand. This supply-demand imbalance, in addition to the high price tag associated with honey, has created major opportunity for honey fraud.

Honey fraud risks

Food fraud is a collective term used for deliberate and intentional adulteration or misrepresentation of food for economic gain. Honey fraud can take on many forms, with the most common type of fraud being sugar-syrup substitution. Besides adulteration, other factors that have an impact on honey authenticity include botanical origin, geographical origin and processing conditions.

From the point at which the honey is harvested from the hive, every processing step tends to impact honey quality. Although a loss of quality is often inevitable, honey should never be heated, stored or processed to such an extent that its essential composition is changed. Quality parameters such as HMF content, diastase activity, moisture content and water-insoluble solids content are regulated to protect both the consumer and the market.

Honey adulteration is a major challenge, as most adulterated honey will test as compliant to the quality criteria set out by local and international standards. Therefore, specific tests must be conducted to detect adulteration. Stable carbon isotope ratio analysis is usually the ‘go-to’ method to detect honey adulteration. This method is based on the principle that honey is generally made from the nectar of dicotyledonous (C3) plants, whilst most sugar syrups are made from monocotyledonous (C4) plants such as corn and cane. However, adulteration with sugar syrups from C3 plants such as rice and beetroot cannot be detected with this test, as these syrups have a similar isotope fingerprint to honey. Fraudsters know this, and may capitalize on this shortcoming.

So is there a feasible solution? Recent studies show authentic honey has an absence of oligosaccharides with a high degree of polymerisation (DP), while sugar syrups (of both C3 and C4 origin) generally contain detectable levels of oligosaccharides with a high DP. Therefore, a more suitable test for adulteration, compared to the traditional stable-isotope approach, is the screening of honey for oligosaccharides with high DP (>3). This test, in addition to the more conventional sugar-ratio analysis, constitutes a strong basis for detecting honey adulteration.

Testing

FACTS offers various honey-testing options, based on the needs of our clients. We have created a honey authenticity test package to combat honey fraud and assess honey composition, quality and ripeness. This test package was developed in conjunction with the Regulations relating to the grading, packing and marking of honey and mixtures of bee products intended for sale in the Republic of South Africa (R. 835/2000), which lists 17 parameters for measuring honey authenticity and states that any of the relevant tests may be selected to profile an authentic honey product. There is some redundancy over the 17 parameters listed; taking this into account, FACTS has identified a combination of parameters that will provide a holistic overview of the authenticity of a honey sample, while optimising testing costs. The following parameters are included in the FACTS honey authenticity test package:

Genuine honey consists of specific sugar ratios, which are represented by the sucrose content, reducing sugar content and fructose:glucose ratio. If honey has been adulterated, these sugar ratios will differ from the required specifications. Genuine honey is also free from oligosaccharides with a degree of polymerisation (DP) higher than 3. Oligosaccharides are short-chain carbohydrate that can be used to indicate the presence of sugar syrups.

Another form of adulteration may be the addition of water to honey, which would affect the honey’s density. Therefore, density has been chosen as another important parameter to be measured. Additionally, the HMF value and diastase activity of honey provide an indication of the degree of mishandling of the honey. These parameters are regulated to ensure that genuine honey has not undergone excessive heating or blending, for example.

Labelling

R.835 further stipulates that the names and descriptions of honey products must be in line with the definitions provided in the regulations. The regulations also provide the standards which must be adhered to when honey is labelled. Religious certifications (kosher and halaal) are currently the only certifications permitted on honey labels. Currently, there is no certification for honey which indicates to the consumer that the product is an authentic honey product.

There is an ongoing need for novel, holistic approaches to evaluating honey authenticity. FACTS strives to stay on top of honey-fraud trends and come up with testing solutions that best support our clients’ needs. For more information on honey testing, assistance with food fraud, and/or consulting on regulatory requirements, please contact [email protected].

Other articles you may be interested in: Tesco’s house-brand honey suspected of adulterationHoney authenticity analysis considerations, The authenticity of honey and the development of the honey category, Authenticity of Honey.