Why the purity of honey matters

Pure honey in a jar Honey (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

Like me, if you also grew up in the suburbs of Mumbai, door-to-door honey vendors were a common sight. They will first knock on your door, requesting that you shut your windows tight. “There’s a honeycomb on the tree next to your building. We are going to cut it down, so the bees may come inside,” they’d warn us. After an hour or so, they will turn up at your doorsteps again with a bucket of “freshly-harvested pure honey”.

I remember the unimpressed look on my mom’s face as our neighbours swarmed around these vendors in a honey-buying frenzy. She knew better than to trust a pair of shady-looking men with a bucket full of viscous amber liquid.

“Those scammers are selling sugar syrup,” she’d tell me. “And they put a couple of dead flies, twigs and leaves in there to make it look authentic.”

She wasn’t wrong. A few days later, an irate neighbour would tell her how the “honey” went hard in her fridge like a lump of sugar.

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Honey trapped

Today, I was suddenly reminded of the episode when big Indian honey brands, who’ve been peddling the “nature-immunity booster narrative” in the pandemic times, have been left with egg on their faces.

Trusted brands like Dabur, Zandu, Baidyanath and Patanjali are in trouble for lying to their consumers. According to investigations by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 77% of the samples have been contaminated with sugar syrup. These brands deftly avoided detection because the adulterant, a Chinese-designed syrup, managed to bypass the standards set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

Kudos to the CSE who performed spy-like feats to get the Chinese companies fess up about these syrups. Talk about honey trapping. Read the full account here.

“What was shocking to find is that adulterated samples with 25 per cent and 50 per cent sugar syrup passed the test of purity. In this way, we confirmed that sugar syrups exist that can bypass the 2020 FSSAI standard for honey,” says  Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE’s Food Safety and Toxins team.

During COVID times when most brands are hard selling their “immunity-boosting” proposition, such deception from trusted names can be deadly. Most households are stocking up on honey in the belief that having it regularly will build immune health and stave off COVID-19 infections. Children and seniors may also be consuming it more than they do during normal times.

How adulterated honey can prove dangerous in COVID-19
Side effects of adulterated honey (Image: CSE)

Honey is a health food, which has numerous, proven therapeutic qualities. Its benefits combined with its high demand and limit availability make it a perfect target for adulteration. To make things worse, there is a lack of effective methods to detect adulterations.

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The many benefits of honey

Honey is one of mankind’s oldest foods. It preserves our health and can also be a powerful weapon against a host of diseases from sore throat to cancer.

While most sweet-tasting things can be bad for diabetics, a study showed how fructose in pure honey can lower blood glucose. You can read all about it over here.

A smear of honey on cuts, scrapes and burns can work wonders thanks to its antimicrobial qualities. To save time, here’s a list of health problems that honey can ameliorate:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cancers
  • Cholesterol
  • Anorexia
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Liver problems
  • Heart problems
  • Stomach problems
  • Eczema
  • Lip sores
  • Infected wounds
  • Genital lesions
  • Burns
  • Surgery scars
  • Athlete’s foot

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How is honey adulterated?

It’s remarkably easy to adulterate honey. Most brands use low-cost sugars and commercial syrups like:

  • Cane sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Glucose syrup
  • Sucrose syrup
  • Inverted syrup
  • High fructose inulin syrup
  • Palm sugar
  • Rice syrup

Honey can be adulterated directly or indirectly. In direct adulteration, they add sugar syrup after production in a certain ratio to increase the sweetness of the honey. Sugar or syrup residues are identical to natural residues in honey, which makes them difficult to detect.

Some mix good quality honey with cheap honey in a technique known as blending.

Commercial honey producers can also indirectly adulterate honey by adding sugars into it through bee feeding. They provide bee colonies with an extreme amount of sugar syrup, which can turn up the honey production.

Why is impure honey bad for health?

Adulterated honey could spell bad news for your health, although the side effects on humans are not completely established.

Anti-Antibacterial effect

Honey has antibacterial effects, helping you fight common colds and stomach problems. But honey mixed with inverted sugar or jaggery can have the opposite effect.

While honey has an antibacterial effect, helping to fight common cold and some digestive problems, the mixture of inverted sugar or jaggery can sometimes restrict the antibacterial properties of honey and lead to stomach disorders

Increased blood sugar

Glucose in adulterated honey can increase insulin secretions. It can also spike uric acid development in the body.

Weight gain

Nutrient-less processed sweeteners are calorie-heavy, making them bad for your waistline. In a Malaysian study, researchers fed rats adulterated honey for two and sixteen weeks. The body weight, fat pads, BMI, triglycerides, cholesterol and glucose level of these rodents increased drastically.

Kidney health

The rodents also showed kidney damage, losing their ability to remove creatinine and urea from the body. Prolonged consumption of high fructose corn syrup can also cause filtration failure in these rats.

In another research, rats who fed on sugar-adulterated honey ended up with enlarged kidneys, with nodules developed on the organs.

Liver health

Consuming honey adulterated with fructose can prevent fatty acid oxidation in the body by stimulating the novo lipogenesis of the liver. This leads to the accumulation of fatty acid in the organ.

Here’s a list of adverse effects on organs caused by adulterated honey:

List of side effects of adulterated honey
Organs affected by fake honey (Image: PubMed)

How to check the purity of honey

Honestly, I never had to check for the purity of honey. Because… I hate honey. It’s bee vomit. But my dad who has a sweet tooth usually gets honey from organic sources. The visual difference between pure and unadulterated honey is stark.

Natural honey versus adulterated honey
The visual difference in natural and commercially-bought honey (Image: My own)

In my observation, adulterated honey has a blonde hue (an indication of processing perhaps?), whereas pure, organically sourced honey is a lot darker. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

But that’s apparently not the only test. With a little help from the internet, I have compiled a set of quick tests check for honey purity.

Burn a wick

Put a cloth or cotton wick in honey and light it. If it burns normally, your honey is good to go. Instead, if it crackles and sputters, there are contaminants in the honey.

Add a spoonful to warm water

Put a spoonful of honey in warm water. Contaminated honey will mix easily. The original stuff will be stubborn as heck, forming a lump and sinking or staying stuck on the spoon.

Drop it on a paper tower

Put a spot of honey on the paper towel. If your honey is pure, it won’t be absorbed. The contaminated stuff, in turn, may leave a wet mark, indicating additives in the honey.

Bear in mind that these are not foolproof tests. Had they been so easy, big corporations may not have been pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes for so long. If you are really up for it, you can submit the honey sample to a lab.