Honey marketed by prominent brands failed a key test of purity, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has claimed, citing an investigation it conducted on various brands of Indian honey.
Current regulations specify around 18 parameters that honey must comply with for producers to label it ‘pure honey.’
CSE food researchers selected 13 brands of raw and processed honey, including Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath and Zandu, and subjected them to tests that are required under national food regulatory laws to be labelled as honey.
Most of the brands passed muster but when subjected to one test, called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR, that can ascertain the composition of a product at the molecular level) that was done at a lab in Germany, only three brands (spanning six samples) passed: Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar (one sample of two). There were often multiple samples tested for each brand.
The NMR test is not required by Indian law for honey that is being marketed locally but is needed for export.
“What we found was shocking” said Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE’s Food Safety and Toxins team. “It shows how the business of adulteration has evolved so that it can pass the stipulated tests in India...We found that sugar syrups are so designed that they can go undetected.”
Dabur Honey in a statement denied that its honey was adulterated with sugar syrup. The company furnished a July 20 report from a German company, Bruker, that is listed as a manufacturer of NMR imaging product, and performed a test of Dabur’s honey composition profile. That report, which The Hindu perused, says there was no evidence of sugar syrup. “Dabur is the only company in India to have an NMR testing equipment in our own laboratory, and the same is used to regularly test our honey being sold in the Indian market. This is to ensure that Dabur Honey is 100% pure without any adulteration,” the accompanying statement noted.
The CSE investigation also said some Indian companies in the honey business were importing synthetic sugar syrups from China to adulterate honey.
Sunita Narain, Director General, CSE said, “We are consuming honey, more of it to fight the pandemic. But honey adulterated with sugar will not make us well.”
These syrups, said Ms. Narain, were capable of passing off as honey, even up to half of which were mixed with sugar, as ‘pure honey’. Among the tests employed as per Indian regulations is one to check whether the honey is adulterated with C4 sugar (cane sugar) or C3 sugar (rice sugar). Most samples cleared these tests but failed another test called the Trace Marker for Rice test, to test for rice syrup adulteration.
Three companies’ samples sent by CSE to the German testing laboratory — Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar—passed the NMR test. CSE did not disclose which German lab tested their products. Ms. Narain added that NMR tests, while being able to detect additives, were not able to detect the quantity of adulteration.
As part of the investigation, CSE traced a factory in Jaspur, Uttarakhand that manufactured a sugar syrup to adulterate honey – all pass honey, as the product is locally known – and found that when mixed with honey that CSE’s team sourced from apiaries, was able to pass Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) tests for honey purity.
Several of these syrups, said Ms. Narain, were advertised on portals like Alibaba, selling fructose syrup that could bypass regulatory tests. CSE also couldn’t say if the sugar syrup they had sourced from China was used in any of the Indian brands tested.
Adulteration of honey is a global problem with several countries, including India, devising regulations and new tests to check it. The latest iteration of a draft law came into effect this July but gives companies until next year to be fully compliant. Adulteration also destroyed the livelihoods of bee-keepers who found it unprofitable to make pure honey because sugar-syrup honey was often available at half the price, according to CSE.