As the world modernizes and population increases, we move further away from authentic and indigenous sources of food production. To meet with rising demand, artificial methods of production have been observed multiple times cross various food item segments, where the edible goods failed to meet the standards set by authorities. Not only does this compromise the taste of the edibles but also poses a huge threat to the human body. At a time when honey is being touted as an effective immunity booster against covid, it has been found after a survey that honey sold by several major brands in India has been found adulterated with sugar syrup, the environment watchdog CSE claimed Wednesday.
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) food researchers selected 13 top and smaller brands of processed and raw honey being sold in India to check their purity. They found 77 per cent of the samples adulterated with the addition of sugar syrup. Only three of 13 brands — Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar — passed the internationally accepted Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) tests conducted by a German lab, considered the gold standard to detect modified syrup adulteration of honey, CSE’s director general Sunita Narain told reporters.
“Honey samples from leading brands such as Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkari and Apis Himalaya, all failed the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) test,” the study said. There was no immediate reply to queries mailed to Dabur, Emami (Zandu) and Patanjali on the CSE findings, while spokespersons for Baidyanath and other companies couldn’t be contacted immediately. Samples of these brands were first tested at the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in Gujarat. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, almost all the top brands passed the tests of purity, while a few smaller brands failed the tests to detect C4 sugar–it is the basic adulteration using cane sugar.
“But when the same brands were tested using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) – laboratory tests currently being used globally to check for such modified sugar syrups – almost all big and small brands failed. Out of the 13 brands tests, only three passed the NMR test, which was done by a specialised laboratory in Germany,” it claimed.
“What we found was shocking. It shows how the business of adulteration has evolved so that it can pass the stipulated tests in India. Our concern is not just that the honey we eat is adulterated, but that this adulteration is difficult to catch. In fact, we have found that the sugar syrups are designed so that they can go undetected,” said Amit Khurana, according to India Today, programme director of CSE’s Food Safety and Toxins team.
Director-General Narain said some Chinese companies had developed a syrup containing fructose, or fruit sugar, that can go undetected in Indian tests for the purity of honey. “The Indian tests failed to track the marker for sophisticated rice syrup, which has high sugar content, but was found through NMR,” Narain said according to The Hindu, adding that CEC can provide test reports from the German lab to regulatory authorities if they wanted.
She added that they then conducted an undercover operation to find out more. “Chinese companies informed CSE that even if 50-80 per cent of the honey is adulterated with syrup, it would pass all stipulated tests. A sample of the syrup that can bypass tests was then sent by the Chinese company as paint pigment to get through customs,” she claimed.
Around 11,000 million tonnes of fructose has been imported into India from Chinese firms since 2014-15, the CSE said. According to the National Bee Board, which oversees and coordinates bee-keeping, honey production in India increased to 105,000 tonnes in 2017-18 from 35,000 tonnes in 2005-06. Honey exports year-on-year increased by 13% in 2019-20; Punjab, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the leading honey producers, the board said.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the regulatory body for food safety in India, has not prescribed NMR tests for honey. FSSAI acted as a whistleblower for the CSE’s investigation by writing to all states governments to look for adulteration of honey using golden sugar, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup, Narain claimed.
“Fructose is developed in a way to escape Indian tests which look for sugar syrup,” she said. “It remains unclear how much does the food regulator really know about this murky business. The three imported sugar syrups named by FSSAI in its directive – golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup — are either not imported in these names or are not indicted for adulteration. Instead, Chinese companies are mostly exporting this syrup as fructose to India. So, why did FSSAI put out what is clearly an erroneous order? We are not certain,” she said in a statement to ThePrint.
A spokesperson for FSSAI said the regulator was waiting for the publication of the results of the tests and would “provide our response accordingly.”
“We know that the households are consuming more honey because of its intrinsic goodness, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Our research has found honey is adulterated with sugar, which could add to the risk of Covid-19. Sugar ingestion is linked to obesity and obese people are more vulnerable to life-threatening diseases. On the other hand, what should also concern us is that the loss of bees will lead to a collapse of our food system – bees are critical for pollination; if honey is adulterated, then not only do we lose our health, but also the productivity of our agriculture,” she said.
As adulteration creeps in manufacturing process increasingly posing a threat to health, it is time to outwit the business of adulteration and put an end to it. We need to strengthen enforcement in India through public testing so that companies are held responsible. The government should get samples tested using advanced technologies and make this information public so that consumers are aware and people’s health is not compromised. It will also hold companies responsible. A robust tracking mechanism must also be set up to ensure that every honey company is required to trace back the origins of the honey – from the beekeeper to the hive. Only then can we truly hope of consuming a 100% pure bottle of honey without worrying about our health.