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As in 2020
Honey’s bitter truth: Sugar syrup that Indian tests can’t detect
Spooked by Covid, if you have been consuming honey for boosting your immunity and losing weight, there is some grim news for you. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has detected significant adulteration in the form of sugar syrups in honey sold by leading brands. This followed laboratory tests in India and abroad. CSE discovered that while the tests being carried out in India, based on the guidelines of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), can detect C3 and C4 sugar adulteration (based on the natural source of sugar), a fructose syrup solution being imported from China in large quantities over the past four to five years goes undetected.
The research and advocacy organisation said on Wednesday that they procured the solution — called an “allpass” one in the industry — and mixed it with pure honey.
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The samples that had adulteration up to 50% passed the Indian tests. CSE also collected 22 samples of branded honey from the market and sent these abroad for a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) test, which is globally accepted but not carried out in India. Only three out of 13 brands passed the test for adulteration, and out of the 22, only five were able to pass the test. The food researchers of CSE had selected 13 brands — both big and small — of processed and raw honey being sold in India. Their samples were first tested at the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) at the National Dairy Development Board in Gujarat. At this stage, 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, which is adulteration using sugar derived from sugarcane. CSE then sent the same brands for NMR testing to a lab in Germany and almost all brands failed, with the lab stating that a sugar syrup had been mixed in the honey.
"It is a food fraud more nefarious and more sophisticated than what we found in our 2003 and 2006 investigations into soft drinks; more damaging to our health than perhaps anything that we have found till now — keeping in mind the fact that we are still fighting a killer Covid-19 pandemic with our back to the wall. This overuse of sugar in our diet will make it worse," said CSE director general Sunita Narain on Wednesday, releasing the study which was conducted over four months. Amongst the big brands, Dabur, Patanjali, Apis-Himalaya, Baidyanath, Zandu and Hitkari are claimed to have failed the NMR tests, while Patanjali, Baidyanath and Hitkari also failed to pass the trace marker test for rice syrup (TMR), another test to judge the purity of honey which is not part of FSSAI’s standards for Indian honey. Apis-Himalaya, meanwhile, failed to clear some of the Indian tests too. Other brands like Dadav, Indigenous, Hi Honey and Societe Naturelle also failed the NMR tests with Dadav and Hi Honey failing the basic Indian tests too.
The three brands out of the 13 which cleared all tests, including NMR, were Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar (one sample).
The study has found that most brands of honey being sold in the country are adulterated with sugar syrup. "This is immensely worrying as it will further compromise our health in the troubled times of Covid-19. We know that households today are consuming more honey because of its intrinsic goodness — antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Our research has found that most of the honey sold in the market is adulterated with sugar syrup. Therefore, instead of honey, people are eating more sugar, which will add to the risk of Covid-19. Sugar ingestion is directly linked to obesity, and obese people are more vulnerable to life-threatening infections," added Narain.
While FSSAI has in the past year directed importers and state food commissioners to look out for "golden syrup", "invert sugar syrup" and "rice syrup" in honey, CSE says it found that high amounts of a fructose syrup were instead being imported from China, with a number of Chinese websites claiming this solution can pass all Indian tests.
In the past four years, more than 11,000 metric tonnes of fructose syrup has come to India (70% of this is from China). According to the NGO, when it contacted these Chinese companies posing as a honey company based in India which was looking for a syrup that could bypass Indian standards, companies in China claimed they could adulterate up to 50% to 80% of honey with this syrup and still pass the Indian tests. CSE says it procured the syrup, which came through Hong Kong to bypass customs clearance and was exported as a "paint pigment”.
Narain says they gathered pure honey and carried out three tests of their own, adulterating it with 25%, 50% and 75% of the "all-pass" syrup and found the solutions with up to 50% of the syrup could clear all FSSAI tests. Interestingly, the study says, the technology to develop this syrup locally has also been exported by China to India with a factory set up in Jaspur, Uttarakhand.
"What we found was shocking," says Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE’s Food Safety and Toxins team. "It shows how the business of adulteration has evolved so that it can pass the stipulated tests in India."
As of August 1, 2020, NMR tests have been made mandatory in India for honey that is meant for export, suggesting that the Indian government is aware of the need for more advanced tests.
Narain said all companies should be required to trace back the origins of their honey — from the beekeeper to the hive. It has also asked for strengthening of the Indian testing system and stopping of imports of syrup and honey from China.
In the saltwater swamps of Sundarbans and the hills of Nilgiris, honey hunting has been a dangerous pursuit. It’s limited to a season, is hard work and the practices have been honed over centuries. The returns, however, had never been proportionate. Of late, honey gatherers say, things have changed somewhat though.
“We harvested 39 tonnes this year. We were not sure if we’d be able to sell it all,” said Ajay Das, 49, from the Mouli community in Sundarbans. But demand went up from 50 bottles a day to 500 in recent weeks. In the Nilgiris, the Kattunayakans produced 1.75 tonnes honey this year, and it’s suddenly selling fast. For the Kurumbas, Irulas and Sholigas, also in the Nilgiris, questions from buyers have changed from why “it’s expensive” to whether they can get it raw.
Forest honey defies consumer expectations — the colours vary, the consistency does too, and can cost up to Rs 1,000 a kg. “But how do you put a price on how a Kattunayakan risks his life to bring you honey?” asked Stan Thekaekara, founder of the nonprofit Just Change, which has been working with the community in Tamil Nadu.
The Kurumbas and Irulas don’t use any metal while harvesting. “They pick the combs with wood. The bees are smoked out, the hive cut from the bottom and the honey collected in a basket lined with leaves,” said Aritra Bose, manager of Last Forest, the brand under which Keystone Foundation sells forest honey. “They leave some hives untouched, so the bees from those can rebuild the others.”
When Marigan and Maran, both in their 60s, spot a forest patch with 150-200 honeycombs, they begin with a prayer. “To the trees, for our safety and for the bees,” said Marigan. When the bees sting, they don’t resist. And they never take away the beeswax. It’s food for the bears. The spike in interest has validated the efforts and, the honey hunters hope, could shift focus to the need for conservation.
India and the world
The production of honey in India, China and other major honey producing countries in 2021