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Detecting Honey Adulteration Can Be a Sticky Business

January 19, 2016

Detecting Honey Adulteration Can Be a Sticky Business

Background

There is nothing sweet about fraud. When it comes to economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of high-priced natural products such as honey, there is nothing new about it either. Unscrupulous sellers have adulterated high-priced honey since the beginning of recorded history. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and even the Talmud mention of it.  In the U.S., Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the first chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said it was the most adulterated product in the country in 1889. In testimony before the U.S. Congress on behalf of what became the Pure Food and Drug Act, Wiley brought along a bottle of adulterated honey, complete with a dead bee atop the syrupy concoction. The bee, he explained, was meant to dupe buyers into thinking the honey was 100% pure. Instead, Wiley testified, the sugary liquid masked a number of ingredients harmful to consumers. 1

Not much has changed over the past century. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrew Schneider made headlines in 2011 when he reported in Food Safety News that “more than three-fourths of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce.” 2

As proof, Schneider’s article cited over 60 samples of commercial honey tested at Texas A&M’s Palynology Laboratory that had no discernable pollen content. By the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) own definition, honey that has gone through ultrafiltration is no longer honey. Based on what Schneider uncovered, the commercial product sold as honey not only failed U.S. standards, it also failed quality standards set by the European Union and the World Health Organization (WHO). The latter group, in fact, argued that ultrafiltration removes all traces of honey’s origin. The only reason to do that, WHO said, was to mask adulteration with an inferior honey or hide potentially dangerous additives to increase profits. 3 By how much? That depends on the amount of additives, but with pure honey now selling at wholesale prices above $5.00 a pound, adulterators can see their profits soar. 4 

Weighing Into Murky Waters

No less of an authority than the FDA finally weighed in on the honey issue in 2014. The American Beekeeping Federation and others petitioned the FDA for an official definition of the sweet, yellowish-brown liquid in the name of international fair trade and the fight against adulteration. In its response, the FDA sidestepped the issue of providing a definitive definition of its own. Instead, it agreed with the prevailing industry definition of honey as “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of flowers and store in honeycombs.” 5  More importantly, the FDA decided to address the labeling of honey as its main concern using existing U.S. laws and regulations. 6

According to the FDA’s interpretation of those laws, products claiming to be pure honey should not contain any additional sugar, corn syrup, or other sweeteners of any kind. If they do, these items need to be labeled as a “blend.” If they do not, the FDA says the honey is adulterated. 7

But, here is the rub: how can you properly label what is inside the jar unless you test it? While it is relatively easy to adulterate and/or mislabel honey, detecting it has traditionally proven to be difficult, time consuming, and expensive. 8 In addition, 75% of the estimated 450 tons of honey Americans consume each year is imported—and a good portion of that is in food products that often contain more sugars than actual honey. Only a fraction is ever tested by U.S. health officials. 9

Because it is not practical to test every ounce of honey entering the U.S, current procedures focus on suspect countries and the testing capabilities of companies importing the honey. As already noted, those tests are expensive and oftentimes not all that accurate. That, however, may be changing.

Comparing Analytical Approaches

Scientists at PerkinElmer, a global leader in human and environmental health, recently piloted three different analytical methods for adulterant detection in honey using its Frontier Near-Infrared (NIR) Spectrometer.  In the targeted example, PerkinElmer researchers first created suitable calibration standards for Clover honey, Wildflower honey, Orange blossom honey, Organic honey, and two adulterants--high fructose corn syrup and rice syrup. They then followed a Partial Least Squares (PLS) method to successfully measure each additive in characterized honey with “known” adulterants.

The scientists then applied a non-targeted methodology known as Soft Independent Modeling of Class Analogies (SIMCA). The SIMCA method is used to inform researchers when a product does not conform to its expected material profile. While the SIMCA test points to possible adulteration, it cannot determine either the specific adulterant or how much is present. Moreover, the SIMCA method fails to identify spiked samples of honey without developing a more refined Pass/Fail threshold.

Groundbreaking Results With Adulterant Screen

The final approach tested by PerkinElmer researchers employed the SIMCA method now augmented by the company’s Spectrum 10 software and innovative Adulterant Screen technology on the Frontier NIR. In this instance, all of the pure honey spectra were input into the Frontier as “material spectra”, and the corn and rice syrups were entered as “adulterant spectra.” The sequential analysis of SIMCA followed by Adulterant Screen provided groundbreaking results. The system not only alerted the analyst when a product did not conform, it also identified the adulterant and provided an estimate of its concentration in the honey…in this case, 4%. Any adulterant with significantly different spectra than honey would have been detected even at much lower levels, PerkinElmer scientists say. Better yet, this all happened within 30 seconds using a simple interface without the need to run multiple concentration standards required by the PLS method or the follow-up tests needed by the SIMCA method.

Finally, PerkinElmer’s Spectrum 10 software and innovative Adulterant Screen technology offers a simple, fast, and cost-effective solution to an age-old question: “Is my honey pure?”  Dr. Wiley would be proud.

References

  1. Wiley, Harvey W. 1889. Foods and Food Adulterants, Washington, D.C., GPO, p. 744.
  2. Schneider, Andrew. 2011. "Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey." Food Safety News.
  3. Ibid.
  4. U.S. Department of Commerce, USDA National Honey Report.
  5. Ibid.
  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Draft Guidance for Industry: Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products, April 2014.
  7. Ettinger, Jill. "No More Sweetwashing: FDA to Finally Regulate 'Real Honey' Definitions", OrganicAuthority.com, April 25, 2014. See also, Susan Heavey, "Just because it's sweet and sticky doesn't mean it's 'honey'-U.S. FDA", Reuters, April 8, 2014
  8. Lang, Justin Lang, and Lauren McNitt. 2014. “Detection of Honey Adulteration Using FT-NIR Spectroscopy,” Application Note, PerkinElmer.
  9. Ettinger, Jill. "No More Sweetwashing: FDA to Finally Regulate 'Real Honey' Definitions", OrganicAuthority.com, April 25, 2014. See also, Wills, Rick. 2015. "Foreign Producers Import Adulterated Honey", TribLive, Pittsburgh Tribune.
  10. Lang, Justin Lang, and Lauren McNitt. 2014. “Detection of Honey Adulteration Using FT-NIR Spectroscopy,” Application Note, PerkinElmer.

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