Why Is Honey Fraud Such a Problem?

By Karen Everstine, Ph.D., Gina Clapper, Norberto Luis Garcia

There are challenges with defining and authenticating honey.

Honey is a deceptively simple product. According to Codex Alimentarius, it is the “natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in the honey comb to ripen and mature.” The result of this extensive process is a substance that consists primarily of fructose and glucose and, therefore, is prone to adulteration with sugars from other sources. Unlike sugars from other sources, honey contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and other micronutrients, which makes it uniquely valuable.1

Honey is much more expensive to produce than other sugar syrups, particularly those from plants such as corn, rice, sugarcane and sugar beets. As a result, there is a strong economic advantage for replacement of honey with other sugar syrups. Honey consistently rates as one of the top five fraudulent food products based on public sources of data (see Figure 1).

Testing to ensure honey authenticity is not always straightforward.2 Traditionally, analytical methods could detect C4 sugars (from corn or sugarcane) but not C3 sugars (from rice, wheat or sugar beets). Testing methods have evolved, but there are still many challenges inherent in authenticating a sample of a product labeled as “honey.” One promising area of authentication is based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which is a method that can identify and quantify a large number of substances in a sample. Instead of trying to detect one particular adulterant, this method allows comparison of the results of a sample to a range of verified honey samples for authentication (similar to “fingerprinting”).

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