Representative image of honey in a bottle. Photo: Sophie Nengel/Unsplash.
New Delhi: An investigation by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has found that a majority of samples collected from both big and small brands that sell honey don’t pass an advanced quality control test.
These findings were revealed after the CSE tested 22 samples from 13 manufacturers to determine the level of adulteration in honey that is commercially available. The brands that were tested are Dabur, Patanjali, Apis-Himalaya, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkari, Dadev, Indigenous, Hi Honey, Societe Naturelle, Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar.
Honey is among the most adulterated food products in the world. Adulteration typically takes the form of the addition of various sugary syrups. Tests are usually designed to determine the presence of C4, C3 sugars and foreign oligosaccharides. According to CSE, C4 sugars are derived from plants such as corn and sugarcane, while C3 sugars are derived from rice and beetroot. Foreign oligosaccharides are starch-based polysaccharide sugars, such as from rice and corn.
The investigation found that while most brands meet the standards set by the regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), only five samples from three brands met the advanced standard – which requires testing with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which CSE says is the global standard to check for modified sugar syrups in honey. These three brands are Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar.
This, according to CSE, shows that the “business of adulteration” has evolved so that it can pass the tests stipulated 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, programme director of CSE’s food safety and toxins team.
Pure honey is packed with nutrients and does not have fats or cholesterol. It is rich in antioxidants, has antibacterial properties, provide relief to sore throats, cough and cold. Adulterated honey, however, can adversely affect a person’s health. Studies have shown that adverse effects include obesity, increased blood sugar, type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
While some brands that failed the test have refuted the findings, CSE has stood by its investigation.
The FSSAI also issued a statement saying it has taken note of the investigation – but added that no food regulator around the world requires NMR tests to check the quality of honey. Plus, its statement continued, the body’s scientific panel believed that NMR isn’t necessary to verify the quality of honey because India lacks the skills, high operating costs and capital required to operate these machines.
CSE first sent the samples collected from the 13 brands for tests at the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) at the National Dairy Development Board, Gujarat. “Almost all the top brands (except Apis Himalaya) passed the tests of purity, while a few smaller brands failed the tests to detect C4 sugar – call it basic adulteration using cane sugar,” CSE said in its statement.
But when the same samples were tested using NMR, just three brands passed. The test was conducted at a specialised laboratory in Germany. The New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation withheld the name of the lab, but said it would be willing to share these details with any government agencies.
NMR is a tool to elicit the presence of different substances in a mixture by studying the structure of the compounds involved. Though NMR is not required to be certified by the FSSAI for sale in the country, the government on August 1 this year mandated NMR tests for Indian honey designated for export. This suggests that the Indian government is aware of adulteration and the need for more advanced tests, CSE said.
CSE also claimed to have found that customs regulations on importing common syrups used to adulterate honey are easy to bypass. Over the last year, FSSAI has issued various orders regarding the use of golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup to adulterate honey. In December 2019 it asked for the premises of honey manufacturing/processing units to inspected at regular intervals to check for the presence of these syrups.
In May 2020, it urged state food safety authorities to seek necessary documents from importers and food business operators who were importing golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup for scrutiny, before issuing clearances. The importers were also required to mention who the end-user of the imported product is, the order said.
However, CSE found that imported sugar syrups continue to be brought in without any indication that they were to be used to adulterate honey. Many companies are also exporting this syrup as fructose, the centre said.
On portals like Alibaba (operated by a Chinese company of the same name), CSE said it found advertisements for fructose syrup that could bypass C3 and C4 quality-control tests. The organisation was also able to import a sample of the syrup, which the exporting company claimed could meet FSSAI’s standard even if the honey was adulterated by 50-80%. The company labelled the sample as “paint pigment” to get it through customs, CSE said.
The investigation also tracked down a factory in Jaspur, Uttarakhand, that manufactures syrup to adulterate honey. And the factory also claimed honey adulterated with the syrup would pass FSSAI’s tests.
To verify these claims, researchers at CSE adulterated samples of pure honey to different degrees and got them tested at CALF. Those samples adulterated with 25% and 50% sugar syrup passed the purity tests. Only one sample, which had 75% syrup and 25% raw honey, failed the tests.
“In this way, we confirmed that sugar syrups exist that can bypass the 2020 FSSAI standard for honey,” Khurana said.
CSE said that manufacturers might prefer to adulterate natural honey with syrup as the latter is much cheaper. “The Indian and Chinese syrups offered to us were much cheaper – while the sample cost was between Rs 53-68 per kg, we were told that we could get the sample at much more competitive rates once we placed bulk orders,” explained Arnab Dutta.
There is also the element of convenience as the syrup is factory-made and can be procured in bulk, but honey would need to be procured from bee-farms in different locations of the country.
CSE director-general Sunita Narain said that to thwart adulteration, the country ought to prevent the import of syrups and honey, and strengthen enforcement in India by conducting public tests so defaulting companies could be held responsible.
Brands refute findings
A Dabur spokesperson told The News Minute that its honey is 100% pure, and 100% indigenous, and devoid of any added sugar or other adulterants. It said its honey complies with the 22 parameters mandated by FSSAI.
“In addition, Dabur Honey is also tested for the presence of antibiotics, as mandated by FSSAI. Further, Dabur is the only company in India to have an NMR testing equipment in our own laboratory, and the same is used to regularly test our honey being sold in the Indian market. This is to ensure that Dabur honey is 100% pure without any adulteration,” Dabur said.
The news website reported that Kolkata-based Emami, which sells the Zandu brand of honey, said it ensures its product conforms to all quality norms. “Emami as a responsible organisation ensures that its Zandu Pure Honey conforms and adheres to all the protocols and quality norms/standards laid down by the Government of India and its authorised entities such as FSSAI,” a company spokesperson said.
Patanjali, on the other hand, told PTI that it makes ‘100% natural honey’ that has tested ‘pure’ on over 100 standards laid down by the FSSAI. The company’s managing-director, Acharya Balkrishna, claimed that the CSE investigation was a plot to “defame” the Indian honey industry in order to promote processed honey.
However, CSE said that any claims by these companies, of meeting all Indian standards, “hold limited value” because adulteration itself has become more “sophisticated”. As the CSE said in its report, “The Indian labs testing for parameters set by the FSSAI could not detect this evolved adulteration.”
“We have also noted that Dabur is constantly changing the language on its claims regarding NMR tests,” Narain added. “In earlier advertisements, it has said ‘NMR tested, pure honey’; as of today – after the release of the CSE investigation – Dabur is claiming ‘source NMR tested’.”
FSSAI takes note of investigation
The regulator FSSAI said it has sought details of the tests conducted by CSE – but asked why the investigation omitted one of its prescribed tests. Specifically, it said CSE found adulterants by using a “non-prescription” trace marker for rice syrup test instead of “a more sensitive” specific marker for rice syrup (SMR). The latter is mandatory as it is “a more focused test to detect adulteration of rice syrup in honey,” according to FSSAI.
Speaking to The Wire, Sonal Dhingra, deputy programme manager of CSE’s food and toxins unit, said their investigation skipped SMR tests only for samples that had been intentionally spiked by the syrup – so researchers could check if they would pass the other tests.
She added that while the SMR test only detects the presence of rice syrup, NMR can map the honey sample and identify all adulterations, including rice syrup.
“Once the details are available, they will be analysed by FSSAI to draw conclusions about the protocols followed and suggest any improvements that are required in the test methodology for the future,” the FSSAI statement noted.
On Friday, CSE said it met senior FSSAI officials, including chairperson Rita Teotia and CEO Arun Singhal to discuss the study’s findings and shared samples and documents. The point about why SMR tests weren’t conducted on samples deliberately spiked with rice syrup was discussed. CSE defended its position saying it was “not the globally understood laboratory test practice”.
In a press release published today, CSE added that FSSAI officials had said they would send adulterated samples for further tests and that they would follow up on all the details provided by CSE. “Based on its review, [FSSAI] has said that it will take the necessary steps to amend the food standard and step up its surveillance,” CSE said.
Note: This story was updated at 4:48 pm on December 4, 2020, to include details of the meeting between representatives of CSE and FSSAI.