Honeygate Explained: Jury Is Out On Whether Your Honey Is Actually Honey

The honey industry is in a bit of a sticky situation. There is no reliable way to currently test whether "pure" honey sold in Australia is actually what it says it is, according to the consumer industry watchdog.

The bigger problem unveiled by the probe, is that testing methods just aren’t good enough — so there’s no really way of knowing if a product lives up to its claims. And the ACCC isn’t sugar coating what needs to change.

The Australian Consumer and Competition concluded its investigation into allegations of "fake honey" against honey producer Capilano.

It followed a joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC that found Capilano's Allowrie import-blended Mix Blosson Honey, Aldi's Bramwell honey and IGA's Black and Gold Honey were adulterated.

The ACCC's investigation was in relation to blended Australian and imported honey, not Capilano's Australian honey range. Image: AAP

Marketed and labelled as "pure" and "100% honey", if the products include other substances such as sugar syrup they are in breach of the Australian Consumer Law in relation to representations. Essentially, you may not be buying what you're being sold.

The ACCC's investigation did not uncover any more evidence to support allegations Capilano's Allowrie honey was cut with sugar syrup -- but it hasn't put the issue to bed either.

“During the course of our investigation however, it also became evident that there is low confidence in the current test method (the C4 test) used to detect adulterated honey," ACCC Deputy Chair Mick Keogh said in a statement.

"Governments and research agencies around the world are investigating alternative testing methods, including NMR, but these are not yet developed to the point they can be used with sufficient confidence."

Tests, Tests Everywhere But Not A Result To Rely On

Fake honey is nothing new.

In 2014, the ACCC fined two companies for selling "Turkish Sugar Syrup" labelled as honey.

As Keogh pointed out, there's problems with the testing methods available.

During the initial scandal, the honey products were subjected to the new testing method Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) in a German laboratory.

But Australia's federal agriculture department uses the "C4 sugar test" -- an older testing method which has come under fire after some producers, particularly in China, have found ways to evade its detection.

Bees largely take nectar from C3 plants, making it easier to detect other sugars in honey. Image: Getty

Put simply, plants produce sugars in different ways, using different chemical pathways -- either C3 or C4. The ever-reliable bee collects nectar mostly from flowers of C3 plants to make honey with, allowing the test to identify "fake" honey because most of the cheap sugar syrups used in their production come from C4 plants.

But newer substitutes, such as rice sugar and wheat sugar, come from C3 plants and therefore aren't picked up.

"Its like doping in sports," Dr Emma Beckett, a molecular nutritionist with the University of Newcastle, told 10 daily.

"Obviously the fraudsters are trying to stay one step ahead of the testing so that’s a clever way to get around it."

So Is NMR The Answer?

Yes and no.

Dr Beckett said while the NMR test is a much more precise method, it's only as good as the database it references.

"It’s all about the actual atoms, the nucleus of the individual bits that make up the components, so it's testing for very specific things" she said.

"You need to have things to compare it to so it gives you kind of a spectrum, a curve with a peak, and you need to have things to match those peaks to to know what it is."

In response to the initial allegations of adulterated honey, Capilano stood by it's testing regime for honey authenticity, which are "the same as those used by international regulatory authorities," and highlighted the failings of NMR testing on Australian honey.

“While we have full confidence that Allowrie Honey contains only pure honey, we also recognise that there is no consensus view from across the industry about the reliability of the NMR test that has led to the reports in the media,” Dr Ben McKee, Managing Director of Capilano Honey Limited, packer of the Allowrie honey brand said in a statement. 

“NMR tests are conducted at European laboratories and the method’s essential flaw is the reliance on a database of reference honeys, and the database is underrepresented for honeys from our region.”

Some producers mix sugar syrups in with their honey as a cheap alternative. Image: Getty
Where To From Here?

So while we can talk about chemistry until the bees come home, Dr Beckett said the industry now needs a couple of things to step up its fake honey detection game.

First, a comprehensive database of Australian and Asian honey and the adulterated substances that would be found in these products. If done properly, and with the right amount of data, NMR can be used to geographically fingerprint exact where honey comes from.

Keogh said the ACCC understands the Department of Agriculture, which inspects imported honey, is currently reviewing its testing standards.

"The ACCC urges the honey industry and the Department of Agriculture develop an agreed approach to testing, and implement more robust programs to provide greater assurance about the integrity of their products,” he said in a statement.

Secondly, and from a consumer perspective, Dr Beckett believes the situation puts an onus on major industry players like Capilano to be more transparent and comprehensive with their supply chains.

"Show us the providence of the honey that’s coming into your products, show us how you can prove that it isn’t fake honey. It it’s all good and well for Capilano to say ‘oh well as far as we’re concerned it’s legit,’ but if they’re buying from an external company overseas and importing it to blend with their honey then we’re kind of getting lost in who is the onus on."

Contact the author: vquested@networkten.com.au

Photo: Getty