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Most samples of honey found adulterated with modified syrup: CSE

By Jayashree Nandi and Suneera Tandon
PUBLISHED ON DEC 02, 2020 11:40 PM IST

New Delhi: At a time when honey is being touted as an immunity booster against Covid-19, the New Delh- based advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) claimed on Wednesday that 77% of samples from 13 top honey brands in the country were found to have been adulterated with a modified syrup to beat safety tests.

Only three of 13 brands --- Saffola, Markfed Sohna and Nature’s Nectar --- passed the internationally accepted Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) tests conducted by a German lab, considered the gold standard to detect modified syrup adulteration of honey, CSE’s director general Sunita Narain told reporters.

Narain, who released the findings of a four-month-long investigation, said honey samples of leading brands such as Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu, Hitkary and Apis Himalaya failed the NMR tests.

Three of these companies -- Dabur, Patanjali and Emami -- said in separate statements that the honey they produce and market complies with all food safety requirements and their products were 100% safe. A Dabur spokesperson termed the CSE’s report “malicious.” Patanjali said the report was aimed at promoting processed honey. The others didn’t respond.

The findings dovetail with practitioners of traditional Indian medicine recommending honey, turmeric, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin and other foods for their immunity boosting properties as the coronavirus disease pandemic rages.

Narain said the findings of the NMR tests were worrying because such products could compromise human health in Covid-19 times.

“We know that the households are consuming more honey because of its intrinsic goodness --- antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Our research has found honey is adulterated with sugar, which could add to risk of Covid-19. Sugar ingestion is linked to obesity and obese people are more vulnerable to life-threatening diseases,” she said.

CSE had 22 samples of the honey brands tested first at the Centre for Analysis and Learning in Livestock and Food (CALF) at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in Gujarat. Almost all the top brands passed the tests of purity; a few samples of the smaller brands failed the tests to detect cane sugar.

Narain said some Chinese companies had developed a syrup containing fructose, or fruit sugar, that can go undetected in Indian tests for the purity of honey.

“The Indian tests failed to track the marker for sophisticated rice syrup, which has high sugar content, but was found through NMR,” Narain said, adding that CEC can provide test reports from the German lab to regulatory authorities if they wanted.

The rice syrup could be made of fructose which, the CSE found, was being produced by a company in Uttarkhand’s Jaspur town and sold at Rs 60 to Rs 68 per kilogram. The syrup was also available for import by Chinese companies, which claimed that it can beat food safety tests in India.

The syrup was also available on the Chinese website of e-commerce giant Alibaba and was sent to CSE through Hong Kong as a paint pigment to evade the import license conditions necessary to import syrup. Narain said the Chinese companies wrote to a CSE employee saying that 50-80% fructose adulteration can remain undetected in food safety tests conducted in India.

To test the claim, CSE got pure honey mixed with fructose tested at NDDB. Honey mixed with up to 50% fructose remained undetected. “Raw honey adulterated with 75% fructose was detected by NDDB, showing how easy it was to adulterate honey with the Chinese product,” Narain said.

Around 11,000 million tonnes of fructose has been imported into India from Chinese firms since 2014-15, the CSE said. According to the National Bee Board, which oversees and coordinates bee-keeping, honey production in India increased to 105,000 tonnes in 2017-18 from 35,000 tonnes in 2005-06. Honey exports year-on-year increased by 13% in 2019-20; Punjab, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the leading honey producers, the board said.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the regulatory body for food safety in India, has not prescribed NMR tests for honey. FSSAI acted as a whistleblower for the CSE’s investigation by writing to all states governments to look for adulteration of honey using golden sugar, invert sugar syrup and rice syrup, Narain claimed.

“Fructose is developed in a way to escape Indian tests which looks for sugar syrup,” she said. “It remains unclear how much does the food regulator really know about this murky business. 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,” she said.

A spokesperson for FSSAI said the regulator was waiting for the publication of the results of the tests and would “provide our response accordingly.”

Dr Rommel Tickoo, associate director of internal medicine at Max Hospital in Delhi, said: “If it’s only sugar syrup that is being added to honey, it is not harmful as such. But if diabetic patients are taking it unknowingly, then it is a cause for concern as sugar levels will shoot up. It can also lead to weight gain if people are consuming {adulterated honey} regularly. More importantly ,the purpose of building immunity with natural honey is not served if its sugar syrup,” he said.

Narain said that because of the adulteration the prices of raw honey has fallen from Rs 150 per kilogram a year ago to Rs 60 per kilogram and the business of honey collection was becoming unsustainable even though the Central government has pumped in Rs 500 crore to improve their livelihood in recent years. “Most honey collectors in Punjab and Haryana say there are no buyers as producers are getting Chinese honey, not knowing exactly what it was,” she said.

Honey collectors of Punjab and Haryana said the adulteration was one reason for falling honey prices despite an increase in demand.

“Increasing adulteration has now become a major challenge for the beekeepers as this has led a fall in prices,” said Gurbax Singh, a honey trader in Haryana’s Karnal, adding that beekeepers were unable to even recover cost of production.

A Dabur spokesperson said the report seemed motivated and aimed at maligning the company’s brand. “We assure our consumers that Dabur Honey is 100% pure. It is 100% indigenous, collected naturally from Indian sources and packed with no added sugar or other adulterants,” the spokesperson said, adding that Dabur is the only company in India to have an NMR testing equipment in its own laboratory.

Acharya Balkrishna of Patanjali said the company sells 100% natural honey which complies with FSSAI standards. “It seems to be a plot to defame Indian natural honey industry and manufacturers in a bid to promote processed honey and promote German technology for testing. “ he said.

An Emami spokesperson said the company’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.”

(With inputs from Neeraj Mohan in Karnal and Aneesha Bedi in Ludhiana)

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