Honey is a deceptively simple product. According to Codex Alimentarius, it is the “natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature.” The result of this extensive process is a substance that consists primarily of fructose and glucose and, therefore, is prone to adulteration with sugars from other sources. Unlike sugars from other sources, honey contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and other micronutrients, which makes it uniquely valuable.1
Honey is much more expensive to produce than other sugar syrups, particularly those from plants such as corn, rice, sugarcane and sugar beets. As a result, there is a strong economic advantage for replacement of honey with other sugar syrups. Honey consistently rates as one of the top five fraudulent food products based on public sources of data (see Figure 1).
Testing to ensure honey authenticity is not always straightforward.2 Traditionally, analytical methods could detect C4 sugars (from corn or sugarcane) but not C3 sugars (from rice, wheat or sugar beets). Testing methods have evolved, but there are still many challenges inherent in authenticating a sample of a product labeled as “honey.” One promising area of authentication is based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which is a method that can identify and quantify a large number of substances in a sample. Instead of trying to detect one particular adulterant, this method allows comparison of the results of a sample to a range of verified honey samples for authentication (similar to “fingerprinting”). This makes it a flexible and more powerful method for authentication. However, one of the current challenges with NMR is that large databases of verified results must be built to enable effective fingerprinting of any single honey sample. Given the variety of botanical sources of nectar, geographic locations of honey productions, and various other natural factors, this is a large task.
USP FCC, along with their global network of scientific experts, has two ongoing projects related to honey authenticity. The first is development of a honey identity standard. The purpose of the standard is to provide a set of specifications and methods that can be used to help ensure a product—particularly one with natural variability, such as a juice, cold-pressed oil or honey—is accurately and appropriately represented. The standard is voluntary and intended for use in business-to-business relationships (it is not regulatory in nature). It is flexible enough to allow for the natural variability of the product. The FCC honey standard was posted and available for public comment last year and is anticipated to be published in the Food Chemicals Codex in September 2021. The USP Honey Expert Panel is also developing a food fraud mitigation guidance document specific to honey. The guidance will include a detailed description of the various contributing factors to honey fraud and guidance on developing a fraud mitigation plan specific to honey. It is planned for inclusion in the FCC Forum in 2022.
Honey is incredibly popular as a food and food ingredient, and honeybees are a critical resource for agriculture and ecological health. Therefore, prevention of honey fraud is a particularly important issue for both the food industry and consumers.
- Ajibola, A., et al. (June 20, 2012). “Nutraceutical values of natural honey and its contribution to human health and wealth”. Nutr Metab.
- Garcia, N. and Schwarzinger, S. (2021). “Food Fraud: A Global Threat With Public Health and Economic Consequences”. Chapter 15 – Honey Fraud. P. 309-334.