Would you lie to me, honey?

Honey adulteration

Your syrupy treat may be more vicious than you thought

Are you a tireless honey guzzler who would rather die than spend a whole day away from your favourite syrupy treat? Do you like to feel the sensation of your throat being caressed by this authentic gift of nature? If two, sound “yes!” answers are your response, and your mouth is watering already, I bet you want to know more about how to defend yourself from typical honey frauds.

But before we get into this discussion, let me briefly define what honey is. Honey is a natural product produced by bees (Apis mellifera) from the nectar of flowers and other plant secretions (or secretions that plant-sucking insects have left on flowers). The bees combine these substances with other enzymes and then store dehydrate the mixture in the beeswax honeycomb, where it ripens and matures into the sweet delicacy that many people love. Various physical types[1] and forms[2] of honey exist on the market today.

This sounds pretty neat, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, honey can be adulterated in various and creative ways.

Unscrupulous sellers have adulterated high-priced honey since the beginning of time. In 1889, Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the first chief chemist of the US Department of Agriculture, wrote the following statement: “There is no other article of food which has been so generally adulterated as honey.” Far more recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrew Schneider reported, in 2011, that over three-fourths of the honey sold in US grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce. This doesn’t sound very encouraging, does it?

For many years, official controls on this product have been mostly aimed at detecting the presence of pesticide or pharmaceutical drug residues, as well as heavy metals, practically ignoring the problem of adulteration. The latter can include: addition of exogenous (inexpensive) sugars, frauds on floral designation, frauds on the geographical designation. Indeed, despite that, no food component or additive can be legally added into honey (Codex Stand. 1981), a typical honey adulteration is the addition of sugar syrups during or after honey production. Alternatively, bees can be fed high-fructose corn syrup instead of foraged nectar. Starch-based sugar syrups, high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup, and saccharose syrups, produced from beet or canes, are all used for honey adulteration. It should come as no surprise that adding cheaper sugars to this product is quite an easy way to reduce product costs, since honey is composed almost entirely of sugars: fructose (33 to 43%), glucose (25 to 35%) and sucrose, maltose, or polysaccharides (0 to 2%).

The European Union regulates and sets standards[3] for this product in terms of acidity level, concentration and type of sugars, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural content, mineral content (ash), moisture, and water-insoluble solids. However, despite the efforts of the European regulators, honey is still one of the food products most frequently counterfeited and adulterated, especially because of the impossibility to discriminate between different botanical and geographical origins. The most accurate and precise chemical analyses (such as NMR[4]) allow the identification of fraudulently-added ingredients but cost an arm and a leg….

According to FAO[5], very few beekeepers are aware of the world situation of the honey market and the phenomenon of honey adulteration concerns both imported products and locally produced ones.

I have always been sceptical about honey and its alleged health properties. As a source of sugar (no matter if illegally added or naturally contained in it), and as easy as it is to be overconsumed, I tend to discourage its consumption, especially to people who need to lose weight. However, if you can’t stay away from it, my advice is to buy it from a local trusted beekeeper. This won’t prevent the risk or botanical misclassification (which I can’t see as a big problem), but at least you will reduce your risk of buying high-fructose syrup at the price of honey.

Avoiding honey consumption will definitely help you “detox” from sweet products and it will reduce the number of calories you consume. If you use honey to prepare cakes and cookies, for instance, consider replacing it with dried dates, raisins, or simply fruit.

Adulterated or not, honey is a source of added sugars and must be treated as such: its consumption should be limited as much as possible.


[1] i.e. pressed, centrifuged, and drained.

[2] i.e. comb, chunk, crystallized or granulated, creamed, and heat-processed.

[3] Directive 2001/110/EC.

[4] Some hopes in honey adulteration detection are coming from near-infrared (NIR) technology and proper statistical analyses. These techniques may be used to batch honey quality monitoring in terms of adulteration and quantity estimation of honey contents by correlating with chemical analysis (Kumaravelu and Gopal, Proceedings of the 2014 International Conference of Food Properties (ICFP 2014) Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 24-26, 2014).

[5] Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO): Aspects of honey adulteration – how to prevent the fraud.  http://teca.fao.org/discussion/aspects-honey-adulteration-how-prevent-fraud?page=1.

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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