–Mohd Imran Khan
Amid COVID 19 pandemic when healthy living is a big issue for one and all and use of honey of top brand for immunity boosting touched all time high in India, but a latest investigation revealed that nefarious adulteration business of honey. It was designed to bypass purity tests and have massive implications for our health.
An investigation by New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)with laboratory studies in India and Germany reveal rampant adulteration in honey sold by major brands in India — 77 % of samples found adulterated with sugar syrup. Only three out of 13 brands pass the internationally accepted Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) test Indian standards for honey purity cannot detect the adulteration. This is because Chinese companies have designed sugar syrups to bypass these standards
Honey samples from leading brands such as Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkari and Apis Himalaya, all failed the NMR test. Only 3 out of the 13 brands – Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar (one out of two samples) — passed all the tests.
“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 against a killer COVID-19 pandemic with our backs to the wall. This overuse of sugar in our diet will make it worse,” said CSE director general Sunita Narain on Wednesday, while releasing a new CSE investigation into honey adulteration. The study has found that almost all brands of honey being sold in Indian markets are adulterated with sugar syrup.
She further said “This is immensely worrying, as it will further compromise 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,”
This food fraud severely compromises public health in the troubled times of COVID-19. Indians today are consuming more honey because they believe in its intrinsic goodness – antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties – and to build immunity against the virus.
But if it is adulterated honey, what we are really eating is sugar, which will add to the challenge of overweight and obesity, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection.
According to CSE studies, CSE food researchers selected 13 top and smaller brands of processed and raw honey being sold in India. Samples of these brands were first tested at the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) at National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in Gujarat. 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 – call it basic adulteration using cane sugar.
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.Our concern is not just that the honey we eat is adulterated, but that this adulteration is difficult to catch. In fact, we have found that the sugar syrups are designed so that they can go undetected.”
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 this adulteration business and the need for more advanced tests.
The China connection and how CSE broke ‘honeygate’
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in the past year, has directed importers and state food commissioners that golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup imported into the country was being used for adulteration of honey. Says Khurana: “It remains unclear how much does the food regulator really know about this murky business.
He adds: “The three imported sugar syrups named by FSSAI in its directive – golden syrup, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup — are either not imported in these names or are not indicted for adulteration. Instead, Chinese companies are mostly exporting this syrup as fructose to India. So, why did FSSAI put out what is clearly an erroneous order? We are not certain.”
CSE tracked down Chinese trade portals like Alibaba which were advertising fructose syrup that can bypass tests. It also found that the same Chinese companies that advertised this fructose syrup that can beat C3 and C4 tests also exported to India. CSE then conducted an undercover operation to find out more. It sent emails to Chinese companies soliciting syrups that could pass tests in India. It received replies that syrups were available and could be sent to India.
Chinese companies informed CSE that even if 50-80 per cent of the honey is adulterated with syrup it would pass all stipulated tests. A sample of the syrup that can bypass tests was then sent by the Chinese company as “paint pigment” to get through customs.
We are consuming honey – more of it to fight the pandemic. But honey adulterated with sugar will not make us well. It will, in fact, make us even more vulnerable. On the other hand, what should also concern us is that the loss of bees will lead to a collapse of our food system – bees are critical for pollination; if honey is adulterated, then not only do we lose our health, but also the productivity of our agriculture.”
“It is for this reason we are publishing this investigation – we know that the honey processing industry is powerful and will argue that it meets the Indian standards for honey purity – but there is too much at stake here,” say Narain and Khurana.
(Mohd Imran Khan is a senior journalist based in Patna)