What is Honey Adulteration?
Adulteration is the polluting of a pure product with a foreign substance. Most honey adulterations around the globe are done with cane or corn sugar syrups being added to a batch of honey.
Pure honey is rather expensive and the syrups are very cheap. However, adulterated honey imported from China contained a dangerous antibiotic, chloramphenicol, that can help bee colony health but is deadly for children. The FDA banned the substance in 2001.
In the Netflix Original Rotten’s
first episode it talks about the Chinese honey adulteration scandals. Not only was the Chinese honey filled with unmentioned additives, but they were also flooding the US market with cheap honey. This and rapid bee population depreciation put a large percentage of American beekeepers out of business. The map below shows the percentage of hive deaths a few years ago according to a survey asking beekeepers about their colonies.
The Effect of Honey Adulteration on the West
The US consumed about 400 million pounds of honey in 2015. It imported approximately 200 million pounds. I’m sure you can imagine what adulterated honey did to our honey markets.
All this fake honey led the US to impose tariffs on Chinese honey imports. It had no effect because the Chinese were selling to nearby eastern countries and proxy selling honey to the US.
It was reported by Food Safety News that three-quarters of US honey is adulterated. Their testing concluded that pollen had been removed from the honey, which is a sign of adulterated honey.
It isn’t quite as bad as you might’ve thought because honey is very diverse. The consistency, taste, smell, heat properties, crystallization, and many other characteristics all depend on the environment and seasonal conditions it was created in. Some honey is processed differently in different regions depending on how valuable the honey is. A scraping method for denser honey can remove pollen, but there are still no additives in the honey.
The EU has since become strict on honey adulteration regulation. All imported honey is sent to labs for adulterant testing. Specifically, QSI labs in Germany is using NMR analysis to build a database of honey from around the world to classify regional characteristics and also test for adulteration.
Unfortunately, the FDA in the US reacted differently. The FDA does not require adulteration testing on imported honeys despite the Chinese scandal. There are a few labs that test in the States for adulteration including US-International Corporation PerkinElmer. Companies pay to have their honey tested, but not all of them do.
Moral of the story is the fact that even half of our honey is adulterated is a serious problem. I’m sure most Americans would think it is an issue.
There is a pretty obvious solution, and it is the only one I can think of:
Honey Adulteration Testing.
There are several analytical labs across the world that are paid to conduct adulteration testing. These include some of the ones I mentioned above such as QSI and PerkinElmer. There are several others like SIRATech in Texas and GNS in New Zealand. GNS helps process its local Manuka honey.
I’ll outline some of these testing methods. I’ve also left a few links if you’d like to continue reading more about the labs and their testing methods.
- Carbon Isotope Ratio Testing – SIRATech uses this type of adulteration testing to test for corn starch or other syrup additives in honey. The carbon isotope ratios are different between nectars and other sugar sources. This is a very old and effective way of testing for honey adulteration, but it isn’t always effective. For example, Manuka honey tested positive for adulteration using this testing even though it was raw honey. The reason turned out to be the method of extraction, which maximizes honey returns but caused the honey to fail the testing. Companies have also found ways to bypass this testing method.
- Database Comparision using FT-IR and NMR spectroscopy – I mentioned above that QSI uses its own special software, database, and NMR technology to classify honeys of all shapes and sizes. PerkinElmer uses its own version of database analyses by building a database using FT-IR tech.
- Differential Scanning Calorimetry – Food Safety Magazine recently did an article about detecting adulteration in honey using thermal testing. It’s an interesting read and holds promise for future adulteration detection technologies.
Clearly, there are a few methods out there, but most of them are costly. The solutions I listed above require fancy lab equipment accompanied by databases that the companies have built over time.
I am currently finishing my final semester as an undergraduate Chemical Engineer and I am proposing to conduct research on honey adulteration testing for my senior project. I’d like to find out how effective most of these testing methods are, and to see if I can build a cost-effective device that can be used by the average citizen to test their honey.
I’ll post in a few weeks to update you on whether the proposal was accepted and how the research was going. In the meantime, I hope you learned something about the honey we consume, and that you continue to follow my blog. If you just can’t get enough of honey head on over to healthy with honey’s webpage. They’ve got an excellent blog where you can read about honey and all its mysteries to your heart’s content.