08/09/2020 – Challenges Of Our Times / Science / Honey / Fraud / Traceability
Sting operation: Honey fraud
Scientific methods are aiding in the fight against a flourishing crime in the food industry – honey fraud. Mark Seed of Elementar UK reports.
The increasing globalisation of food supply chains has created all sorts of opportunities for producers and sellers in the last few years. However, it has also led to a whole host of new challenges, especially when it comes to maintaining product quality and traceability across an ever-more complex international supply network.
One area where suppliers are experiencing the greatest difficulties is in the sale of honey – an ingredient that has seen a sustained increase in popularity, and an accompanying rise in the circulation of fraudulent, adulterated or substandard produce. This trend is causing real damage to the industry, and risks undermining public trust in a product that is valued specifically for its natural purity.
Fortunately, scientific analysis tools continue to be developed for the detection of honey adulteration, with new generations of equipment offering increased sophistication and efficiency. Through the use of these methods, the food industry will be better equipped to fight back against the fraudsters and safeguard the integrity of the honey trade.
Honey adulteration: A growing global issue
The harmful proliferation of fraudulent honey is coming at a time when the honey industry should be enjoying greater revenues and success than ever before. Consumers are paying more attention to what they eat, and honey has exploded in popularity as a natural, energy-rich sweetener – one that is seen by many as a healthier and purer alternative to sugar.
This interest has translated into significant growth in honey sales, with data from Statista showing that the global honey market was worth close to US$7.05 billion in 2016 (up from US$4.82bn in 2007), with the average annual production of honey reaching 1.86 million metric tons in 2017. However, robust demand has also attracted the attention of unscrupulous producers, who have inundated the market with adulterated, low-quality or mislabelled honey.
A recent exposé by Vice revealed a number of troubling trends, citing the results of a US study that tested 110 honey products to find that around 70 per cent were adulterated in some way. A 2018 study from Australia revealed less extreme but similarly worrying results, assessing 95 products from local food markets and supermarket shelves to find that 27 per cent were of “questionable authenticity”.
There are a number of reasons why these fraudulent honey products are starting to flood the market. In some cases, low-grade honey will be augmented and diluted with other kinds of sugar in order to make it sellable; in other instances, the premium placed on certain specific honey variants, such as the New Zealand-produced Manuka honey, will prompt fraudsters to tamper with their products to pass it off as one of these exclusive varieties.
As such, honey has become the third most adulterated food product in the world, despite strict guidelines in the international Codex Alimentarius rules stating that no other substances or additives can be added to honey. And it seems that even the biggest brands and retailers are not safe from this impact, with UK supermarket giant Tesco being forced to withdraw batches of its own-brand honey from sale in November last year after testing showed it had been adulterated with sugar syrup.
Given the negative effect these trends are having on industry pricing models, profitability levels and consumer trust, it is clear that this is an issue that needs to be tackled head on.
How is honey adulteration detected?
When a problem emerges on this kind of scale, the tools needed to address it need to be sophisticated, flexible and constantly evolving. Fortunately, food quality labs are able to rely on a suite of sophisticated scientific methods to help them solve the issue of honey fraud as effectively as possible.
The most common method for doing so involves analysing honey samples using isotope-ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), allowing the sugar carbohydrates within to be separated, oxidised and analysed in the form of carbon dioxide gas. This makes it possible to look at each specific sugar found in the honey sample to determine their origins.
Natural sugars found in honey are categorised as C3 sugars, which are generated from flowering plants; many honey products are adulterated with C4 sugars, such as cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which can be easily spotted through this method. Others are augmented using other forms of C3 sugar taken from crops such as beets and rice, yet this kind of fraud can also be spotted with this technique.
Additionally, these methods can be used to look for geographical markers, such as regionally specific pollen, to identify the true origins of a honey sample, helping to prevent fraudulent mislabelling and safeguard protected regional products.
Evolving analysis methods for honey fraud
With the threat of honey adulteration becoming more prevalent, the lab science community continues to find new ways to innovate to provide honey producers with the most sophisticated tools available to combat the problem.
Some manufacturers are providing processes and technologies to analyse honey samples in different ways – nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, for example, is being utilised by some labs to assess the composition of honey samples on an atomic level – while others are working to improve methods that are already popular, but need refining.
Elementar’s BiovisION Honey – developed specifically for honey analysis – is an example of the latter. It uses the familiar principle of carbohydrate separation, but relies on high-temperature combustion to convert the carbohydrates into CO2, rather than the less efficient wet chemical methods used by established systems. This new approach is much more reliable, with lower running costs, fewer maintenance issues and less downtime.
The availability of innovative solutions like these are likely to be welcomed by a honey industry that is under mounting pressure to get to grips with the threat posed by fraud as soon as possible. With market competition on the increase and honeybee populations becoming harder to maintain, producers can ill afford to see their margins reduced further by an influx of poor-quality facsimiles.
In the coming years, the international food supply chain is only likely to become more complex and globally integrated, and the honey sector will need to evolve accordingly. By making proper use of the latest quality assurance tools available to them, honey sellers will be able to capitalise fully on all of the opportunities presented by the growth of the industry – without having to sufffer the nasty sting in its tail.
To learn more about Elementar UK’s BiovisION Honey analysis tool, visit: www.elementar.com
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