Honey Adulteration

Context: 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.


  • One of the major adulterants was sugar syrup/synthetic sugar syrup which when mixed with honey sourced from apiaries can pass Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) tests for honey purity.
  • Honey is mixed with sugar syrup, and this syrup made from rice and other crops can pass all laboratory tests. 
  • Current regulations specify around 18 parameters that honey must comply with for producers to label it ‘pure honey’.
  • Most of the brands failed to clear Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR, that can ascertain the composition of a product at the molecular level) test.
  • NMR tests, while being able to detect additives, were not able to detect the quantity of adulteration.
  • NMR is seen as the gold-standard for testing for adulteration in honey, designed specifically to redflag samples that use modified sugar syrups.
  • The technology, similar to MRI, uses imaging to get a full picture of the honey and its constituents. It is then able to identify both the origin of the honey and its authenticity.
  • The NMR test is not required by Indian law for honey that is being marketed locally but is needed for export.
  • 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.
  • Adulteration of honey is a global problem with several countries, including India, devising regulations and new tests to check it.
  • 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.
  • The globally accepted definition of honey given by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) Codex Alimentarius Commission says if honey is adulterated with sugar it is not honey. 
  • In December, 2014, FSSAI added antibiotic limits to standards for honey.
  • These limits were brought in as there is growing concern about how bacteria-causing infections in our bodies are becoming resistant to antibiotics.
  • in 2017, FSSAI issued a draft notification with substantial changes in the honey standard for public comments.
  • In this draft notification, the food regulator, for the first time, included tests to detect sugar made from cane, rice, and other crops like beetroot. 
  • C4 sugar syrups comes from plants like corn and sugarcane, which use a photosynthetic pathway called C4.
  • This analytical method was developed by scientists to differentiate the “sugar” in honey from the “sugar” that would come from C4 plants. The 2017 draft included this test.
  • But globally adulteration business evolved with the sole objective to beat laboratory tests — this meant replacing the type of sugar that could be used for adulteration.
  • To this end, another category of plants was used, this time that used photosynthetic pathway called C3. These plants are rice or beetroot.

A brief bio of sugar

  • Sucrose, glucose and fructose are all sugars that contain more or less the same calorie per gram.
  • They are differentiated on the basis of their chemical structure and how our bodies digest and metabolise these.
  • Glucose is simple sugar or a monosaccharide — it’s what the body digests fastest. It can be extracted from corn and added to processed foods as dextrose.
  • Fructose is also simple sugar, but it is what is called “fruit sugar” as it is found naturally in fruit, honey, cane and beetroot, to name a few vegetables. It is also easy to digest.
  • Honey has higher fructose, than glucose, but what differentiates it from other “sugars” is that it also has a variety of good enzymes, which break down the sugars — these enzymes come from the plant itself or from the bees.
  • The ratio between fructose and glucose changes based on the origin of the honey — which plant and also if it is multi-floral (many flowers) or mono-floral (one plant/flower). So, one its own, the ratio is not the determinant of adulteration.
  • Note: Each product imported into the country has what is called the harmonised system (HS) code that describes the type of good that is shipped. 

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