LISTEN: Fancy a little syrup with your honey?

LISTEN: Fancy a little syrup with your honey?

When a food product carries a premium price, there will be those in the industry who’ll pass off a cheaper, adulterated version of what the label claims it to be.


Listen to Wendy's on-air segment or read the full story below the podcast.

Olive oil fraud is a huge issue globally - one of the many reasons to support local producers - and with 500g bottles of honey now selling for upwards of R60, with many manufacturers producing 375g bottles to create a lower price point, honey fraud is a growing concern.

We have the most amazing locally produced honey in this country - among the best in the world, as with olive oil - but there’s only enough to meet about half of consumer demand, so the rest has to be imported.

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China is the biggest and cheapest producer of honey but that country’s honey reputation has been tainted by several scandals in recent years:  among them treating a bee disease with antibiotics, one of which is potentially carcinogenic, and adulterating their honey with sugar.

So many honey lovers, myself included, prefer not to consume Chinese honey.

The food fraud trend 

The term “packed in South Africa” appears on some honey labels. That’s a cheat because it’s not revealing country or countries of origin as the regulations require.

And if you see the words “Packed in South Africa”, you know the honey is imported, probably from China.

Adding syrup to honey is also a food fraud trend internationally. 

Bee honey is far healthier than sugar, being a source of rich, nutritious compounds.

There are two ways honey on sale in South Africa could be not what it claims to be:

*It has cheap sugar syrup added to it;

*It claims to be produced in SA, but it’s actually either 100% imported low cost, low quality honey, or diluted with inferior imports.

How can you tell that it's pure honey?

So how can we tell, bearing in mind that taste is not the most accurate gauge, as honey as a broad taste spectrum, given that South Africa alone has one of the most diverse flora on earth.

There are several scientific methods, such as thermal analysis, but they are expensive, time-consuming and in most cases destroy the sample used.

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Now, thanks to researchers with Stellenbosch University’s food science department, there’s now a quick, easy, non-destructive, relatively inexpensive way to tell know not only whether a sample of honey is adulterated or not, but whether it’s South African or not.

Collaborating with the researchers at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, the Stellenbosch University researchers have developed a testing method using a small, rod-like portable near-infrared spectroscopy device, linked to a tablet, which reveals the chemical make-up of an entire honey sample.

The researchers didn’t invent the device - the technology is widely used in the food industry. What they did was calibrate it to “read” honey. In just eight seconds it can tell whether a honey sample has been made by South African bees or not, whether it’s a mixture of local and imported honey, and whether or not it has been adulterated with syrup.

The work was conducted by Dr Anina Guelpa. Her study leader, Professor Marena Manley, said the idea for the honey analysis tool came to Dr Guelpa on speaking to people working in the local honey industry. 

"She had informal discussions with some honey producers and from that we gathered that they are slightly concerned about imported honey,” Manley said. "So we thought we’d be proactive and develop a method of honey analysis specifically for South African application.”

When honey is labelled as being produced locally, but in reality it has been imported or diluted with imported honey, she said, “not only is the consumer misled, but it means that the local producers cannot compete with the low pricing of these adulterated honeys.”

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The technology was intended mainly for the honey producers in SA to be able to check the authenticity of imported honey, Prof Manley said. 

The honey samples which the Stellenbosch University team have tested thus far have all been true to label, but I’m quite sure that there are honeys on sale in SA which aren’t pure honey as they claim to be.

So, if you come across honey which you suspect is not what the label claims it to be, let me know where you bought it and what you paid for it, and I’ll get my hands on a bottle and send it to Prof Manley to be tested. 

I’m busy collecting a few samples of my own.

To be continued…

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