Food fraud is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency have been on the rise. From counterfeit extra-virgin olive oil to intentional adulteration of spices and the manufacturing of fake honey, food fraud has been estimated to be a $US40 billion a year industry. In a series of posts we will cover a range of recent issues.
First cab off the rank is fake honey.
The brutal reality is adulterated honey is big business. It is all too easy to cheat by diluting honey with cheap sugar syrup substitutes, such as rice syrups, corn syrups, high fructose corn syrups and acid inverted sugar syrups. It can also be adulterated with natural syrups such as maple, cane sugar and molasses.
This is nothing new as food fraud experts point out that honey is one of the most commonly mislabelled foods around the world. After enough scandals involving cheap adulterated Chinese honey flooding the American market, the US Federal Trade Commission imposed stiff tariffs on Chinese honey in 2001 to try to stop it from being imported. That just meant that the Chinese honey was laundered through other Asian and some European countries before finding its way to the American market.
A new scandal erupted in mid 2018 as researchers determined that almost half the honey sold on Australian supermarket shelves was fake honey.
China is a common source for the sugar syrup culprits with Chinese websites selling them with claims that they can pass various official honey tests (see below).
Destroying the good name of honey
Humans have been harvesting honey for more than 6,000 years. It has been used as both a food and a medicine. Historically, people have used it to sweeten food and make fermented beverages like mead. Today it is also used in industrial food processing of baked products, confectionary, candy, marmalades, jams, spreads, breakfast cereals, beverages, milk products and many preserved products.
Honey is also considered to carry health properties. It contains a number of antioxidants, including phenolic compounds like flavonoids, that have been linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and some types of cancer.
Honey seems to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. It leads to modest reductions in total and “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Several studies show that honey can lower triglyceride levels, especially when used as a sugar substitute. Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Honey also has antimicrobial properties. When applied to the skin, honey can be part of an effective treatment plan for burns, wounds and many other skin conditions. It is particularly effective for diabetic foot ulcers.
For children over one year of age, honey can act as a natural and safe cough suppressant. Some studies show that it is even more effective than cough medicine.
Destroying the business for beekeepers
Substituting cheap sugar syrups for honey would negate many of the positive properties of honey. If that is not bad enough it makes it difficult for beekeepers to compete and threaten the survival of bees. No bees – a starving world, it’s as simple as that.
Bees and other pollinators fertilise three-quarters of global food crops and have seen severe declines in recent decades, due to loss of habitat, disease and harmful pesticides. In the UK, wild honey bees are nearly extinct, solitary bees are declining in more than half the areas studied and some species of bumblebee have been lost altogether.
The large bee losses reported worldwide over the last decades have stimulated a lot of research on the monitoring of bees and the potential causes of the losses including pathogens, pests, diseases, nutrition, pesticides, habitat and climate changes. During this process, extensive datasets have been generated and collated on honeybee losses that have been linked to diseases, pests and pathogens in Europe and North America. Less is known about the situation for solitary bees and bumblebees.
Fake honey is a further nail in the coffin.
Beating the cheaters
Many of the syrups sold by the Chinese promises to be able to beat what’s called a C4 sugar test, which is the official test used in Australia and many other countries for testing of honey adulteration.
Sugars produced from tropical plants like sugar cane and maize/corn are produced using a photosynthetic pathway referred to as the C4 pathway. Nectar which is collected by bees comes from plants that use a different process of photosynthesis, referred to as the C3 pathway. There is a measurable difference in the ratio of the naturally occurring carbon-12 and carbon-13 isotopes in sugars arising from the C3 and C4 pathways, and this test uses this difference to identify whether C4 sugar appears to have been added to the honey.
But what to do when the cheaters even cheat the test? Well, there is a method called “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance” (NMR for short). The nuclei in atoms have electrical charges, and many also have a physical property known as spin. This means they are sensitive to magnetic fields in NMR machines with the nuclei of each type of atom reacting differently. By measuring how the nuclei in the sample respond to different magnetic fields a fingerprint of what is in the sample is created.
NMR is a very sensitive technique already used in other parts of the food industry, such as testing fruit juices and wines. In honey, it can distinguish between the different types of sugars and detect other components that give honey its unique flavours. It is a relatively new method that may be adopted by official bodies in the future.
A brighter future
There is hope that honey adulteration might become a cheat of the past with the new analytical methods. This will allow honey consumers to enjoy their passion and beekeepers to secure their future.
And bees will be allowed to perform their work benefiting the worlds food crops.