3 of 4 honey brands in PH fake, says study
MANILA, Philippines — Consumers beware: It may not be real honey that you are buying.
Researchers from the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) have found that at least three of four honey brands being sold in the Philippines are not pure or are entirely fake.
The questionable honey products contained or were almost fully low-cost syrups made from sugarcane and corn, they said, citing tests using the internal standard stable carbon isotope ratio analysis (Iscira).
Results of the study were presented by the PNRI last week as part of this year’s Philippine Nuclear Research and Development Conference.
“Adulterated honey takes up 75 percent to 86.5 percent of the local market,” said Angel Bautista VII of the PNRI as he presented the results.
The research team was composed of Bautista, Marco Lao and Norman Mendoza, all from PNRI, and Cleofas Cervancia, professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and recognized as the “Filipino Bee Scientist.”
Corn, sugarcane sources
A total of 131 honey brands were tested—57 bought from supermarkets, stores, and souvenir shops; and 74 bought on online shopping platforms.
The research team used the Iscira to trace honey adulteration with sugars from C4 plants, such as corn and sugarcane, looking at the difference of carbon-13 isotope signatures between bulk honey (which is mostly sugar) and its internal protein (which comes from the nectar, pollen and enzymes of bees).
Authentic honey should register similar carbon-13 values of its bulk honey and protein.
Forty-one of the 57 honey brands bought from the “physical” stores, which were imported, were found to be authentic. But of the remaining 16, 12 that were made in the Philippines were found to be adulterated with C4 sugars.
Among the 74 honey brands—all of which indicated to be made in the Philippines—bought online, 64 or 86.5 percent were found to be mixed with C4 sugars.
Worse, 62 out of the 76 local honey brands both bought physically and online were found to be 95 percent C4 sugar syrup. “So they are not actually adulterated, but they are just completely purely sugar syrup,” Bautista said.
The researchers did not disclose the names of the brands found to contain adulterated honey.
“If we just release the names of the companies, they may stop for a while. But no one can stop them from faking honey again in the future,” Bautista said.
“The problem is that people are being tricked,” he said. “You may be buying honey for its wonderful health benefits but because of adulteration, you may actually just be buying pure sugar syrup. Consuming too much pure sugar syrup can lead to harmful health effects.”
Studies show that the intake of C4 sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, is associated with prevalent coronary heart disease and arthritis.
Honey sold in the local market must not have any food additives and other substances, based on the Philippine National Standard for Honey of the Bureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Standards.
Any substance added to honey must be declared on the label. The geographical location where the honey was sourced should be written on the label.
The national standard for honey, which was last updated in 2016, only requires an analysis for moisture, sugar, and water insoluble solids contents.
The PNRI study confirmed that the worldwide problem of “honey laundering,” pertaining to the large-scale counterfeiting and adulteration of honey, was also present in the Philippines.
An analysis by the Honey Authenticity Project, an association of activists and industry members, has estimated that one-third of honey being sold worldwide are either fake or adulterated.
“This problem is dampening what is supposed to be a very vibrant and promising industry,” Bautista said.
Pulling down prices
He also noted that the high prevalence of fake honey could pull down the prices of honey on the market as these could be sold for as low as one-third of the price of authentic honey.
“Imagine incomes that are supposed to be for our honest beekeepers and honey producers are being lost instead due to adulteration and fraud. This is affecting our local honey industry so badly that we estimate that they are losing around P200 million per year,” he said.
The researchers have forwarded their findings to the regulatory bodies at the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. They recommended the use of Iscira in regulatory processes and Philippine National Standards for honey.
“If we incorporate these isotope-based standards into our regulatory system and the Philippine National Standards, then we think it will be a long-lasting solution to this problem,” Bautista said.
Without a more sophisticated method of analysis, consumers have devised ways to differentiate fake from real honey. But Bautista cautioned that these could not be conclusive.
A popular method is called the “water test,” in which a teaspoon of honey is put in a glass of water. Fake or adulterated honey will dissolve, while pure honey will settle at the bottom of the glass as lumps.
“If we do that, we are only testing its moisture content. In some cases, it works, but honey has a range of moisture to be considered authentic,” Bautista said.
Moisture content may also be affected by external factors, such as the climate of the place where it is sourced.
“But the problem is if the one faking it is very knowledgeable or is very skilled, he can even adjust the moisture level of the fake honey to mimic that of authentic honey’s. So when he does that, it will pass the water test method, even though it’s fake,” Bautista said.
Iscira is a more foolproof method of screening honey, he said. The carbon-13 signature is like a fingerprint of honey, he noted. It can vary depending on the geology and climate of the place where it was sourced, the plant where the bees get its nectar, and even the species of bees which produced the honey.
“It is very hard to replicate, it’s hard to fake, it’s more reliable than the other tests,” Bautista said. INQ
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