Not a Sweet Spot: Why We Need to be Careful While Choosing Honey

Simantini Dey
·6-min read

As it happens, honey sold by major Indian brands isn't that sweet, metaphorically so. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) investigation has found that honey manufactured in India by top brands, is laced with modified sugar syrup. The investigation claims that the adulteration of honey goes undetected during the quality checks under the prevailing Indian standards of food safety testing.

Honey, the viscous liquid substance, has a sweet history though. Ancient Egyptians made most of their medicines with it. They used it for sweetening food, treating wounds and embalming dead bodies. The famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, bathed in milk and honey to keep her skin glowing. Ancient Greeks made beverages and fever medicines out of honey. They used it as contraception, and for treating baldness, and sore throat.

In India, however, the use of honey has been far more integral, not just in the past but also in modern times. It is regarded as one of the Panchamrita (food of the Gods) and has particular significance in Hindu rituals. Old Ayurvedic texts mention it as a beneficial medicine for treating cardiac pain, palpitation, weak digestion and insomnia. In modern times too, despite our firm reliance on western medicine, honey is often prescribed by doctors, nutritionists and dietitians for its nutritional value. It continues to be one of the staple ingredients for most home remedies and face packs.

Janvi Chitalia, a Mumbai based Functional Nutritionist and Integrative Gut Microbiome Coach said, "Raw honey contains polyphenols which work as an antioxidant to protect cells against radical damage and also contain phytonutrients that aid antibacterial and antifungal properties to fight against infections and boost healing time. It is often used to treat diarrhea and used in cases of H-pylori bacteria. It contains probiotic properties that are the raw material for the gut microbes; therefore, it also helps in maintaining gut balance."

Many people drink a glass of honey and lemon water every morning, and several people with diabetic tendencies substitute sugar with honey to keep their sugar intake minimal. Anyone who aspires to shed some kilos, despite being a sweet tooth, turns to honey. Therefore, the recent CSE report raises a cause of concern for many Indians consumers who use honey on a regular basis.

The business of the nectar of Gods

According to reports, some of the most prominent honey brands in India -- Dabur, Patanjali, Zandu, Baidyanath, Apis Himalaya, Hitkari and others -- have failed to pass the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) test, which is regarded as the global gold standard for honey purity testing. The test was conducted as part of a sting investigation conducted by a Delhi-based NGO CSE.

The brands, which allegedly failed the NMR test have already issued statements dismissing the report. A spokesperson from Emami (Zandu honey) said, "Emami, as a responsible organisation, ensures that it's Zandu Pure Honey conforms and adheres to all the protocols and quality norms/standards laid down by the Government of India and its authorised entities such as FSSAI. "

"According to the directive of FSSAI, testing for the presence of foreign sugar and rice syrup addition in the honey is done by IRMS method. IRMS method is not only accurate but also the most widely used and accepted method to check Honey adulteration with foreign sugars. All our batches are also sent to German lab for checking addition of sugar/syrup," he added. Several media reports also quoted Dabur spokesperson saying that the CSE report is 'motivated and aimed at maligning the brand' and reiterating that Dabur Honey is 100 per cent pure.

However, this isn't the first time top Indian honey brands have flunked the purity test. According to The Hindu Businessline report, two years ago, a study by Consumer Voice found authenticity issues with honey sold by top 10 Indian brands.

What happens if you consume adulterated honey?

Few questions that the CSE report has thrown open for the consumers are how pure is the honey which they are consuming, and applying on their skin? The CSE report states that in most cases it was found that the honey was adulterated by mixing sugar syrup and experts believe if so is the case, it can have an adverse effect on people's health.

"If high fructose corn syrup or sugar syrups are used in honey for adulteration it is likely to increase harmful substances called advanced glycation end products which may harm the cells by driving an inflammatory response," added Chitalia.

Dr Shikha Mahan, Senior Dietician at BLK hospital, Delhi, told News18, "If one consumes adulterated honey for long, their sugar levels may shoot up, which in turn, can accelerate weight gain. For some diabetes patients, it can also increase blood pressure."

"When the quality of honey is compromised, and you are using it for skincare, it can affect your skin badly. Mainly, honey is used in skincare regimes to tighten the skin and make it glowing. But, if chemical components are added in the honey, and it is not entirely pure, then you will obviously not get those benefits. In fact, your skin might become extra dry." said Dr Jinal Ramesh Patel, from Apollo Spectra Hospital, Mumbai.

Reading labels, providing more information to consumers

"The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has been raising awareness about the significance of reading labels, and I cannot emphasize that enough. Companies also have to specify what ingredients are being used, and what's their nutritional value. I think if we are vigilant and we read labels, then we can make the correct choices, " pointed out Dr Zamurrud Patel, Chief Dietician, Global Hospital, Mumbai. The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) this year has already received several complaints in the honey category, and although it has not disclosed the names of the companies against whom complains were made, the council has said that brands have to give more details and information about their products to back their claims.

After CSE report became public, and it was found that several honey brands which had FSSAI approval, has not passed the NMR test, in a press release, FSSAI revealed that it has sought details of the test conducted by CSE, and aims to incorporate more focussed test for checking honey adulteration. According to a report in Mint (https://www.livemint.com/news/india/fssai-seeks-test-details-on-adulterated-honey-asci-warns-against-misleading-ads-11607008681056.html), FSSAI said that that NMR technique is a database driven detection and quantification of various chemical compounds, especially for authenticating the origin of a sample of honey. However, currently no such database exist for Indian honey, so NMR testing will have 'limited utility' in our country.