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How can you tell if honey is pure?

Most people who buy honey direct from a beekeeper, do so because they want pure, raw, local honey. Thanks to beekeepers, consumers are becoming more aware that honey is one of the commonly adulterated foods in the “food fraud” industry.It is understandable there would be concerns about whether the honey being purchased is pure. A paper published in the Journal of Food Science justifies these concerns as it concludes that olive oil, milk, honey, and saffron are the most common foods tampered with by manufacturers.

My honey is labeled as 100% Pure Raw Honey, and as a member of the Real Texas HoneyTM program, I have a “Real Honey” sticker affixed as well! But other than taking my word for it, how can someone know the honey they buy is pure, unadulterated honey?

On August 2nd, I asked members of two Beekeeping Facebook groups*,“Other than having a sample lab-tested, how can a person tell if honey is pure honey (unadulterated)?” A total of sixteen beekeepers replied to my question. Half of the responses were: ‘Know your beekeeper” or “Be a beekeeper.” 

Two (2) suggested “at home tests.” First was the “water test”. To do the water test, put water into a small cup or bowl, then pour about a tablespoon of honey into the water. Supposedly, if the honey is pure, it will reach the bottom of the water without dissolving (mixing with the water).

The second suggested test was to “dip a matchstick in honey and then light it. If it burns, that means the quality of your honey is pure.” Sporkin Theeye said, “There are dozens of supposed 'home tests,' but I am not aware of any that work.

“ E.T. Ash commented: “… for some things only a lab test will provide conclusive results. NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) is considered the gold standard.”

Concluding more research was needed, and being a lazy researcher, I just “Googled it,” and in that search I found several techniques to home test for honey purity. According to Dr. Prekshi Garg, honey can be home tested by the Solubility test (water test), the Flame test (matchstick), the Blot test (the flow-ability of honey) and the Vinegar test (foam/no foam). However, Garg also stated that for each of these home tests, depending on the substance added to the honey, the tests can give false results (adulterated honey passing as pure honey).

This inspired me to conduct the home tests myself with my recently extracted honey that I know is pure.

For the comparison to adulterated honey, I added light corn syrup at the ratio of 3 parts honey to 1 part corn syrup. The corn syrup-honey was very runny. From appearance alone, I don’t think it passed for honey. I also used the same ratio with pancake syrup. It was thicker than the corn-syrup honey and looked like honey. My results were as follows:

Not surprisingly, the pure honey passed all of the tests. But the pancake-syrup “sort of” passed all the tests, and even the corn-syrup honey, that visually didn’t look like pure honey, passed half the tests! Therefore, based on this experiment, my conclusion is the home tests are not reliable for determining if honey is adulterated.

Taking it a step further, I also researched the types of laboratory tests available for honey. According to the National Honey Board’s FAQS on Honey Testing Methods for Detecting Adulteration with Sugar Syrups, there are four types of tests:

  1. 13C Stable Carbon Isotope Ratio Method (SCIRA) or EA/IRMS.
  2. 13C Stable Carbon Isotope Ratio Method paired with a Liquid Chromatograph or EA/LC-IRMS.
  3. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Profiling or NMR.
  4. Liquid Chromatography-High Resolution Mass Spectrometry analysis or HRMS.

The first one, EA/IRMS, was developed in the 1970's. It only detects the presence of syrups made from C3 plants – corn and sugar cane. In response, the companies diluting their honey adapted by switching to syrups made from C4 plants – beets, rice, wheat, and others.

In 2008, the EA/LC-IRMS test was developed which detects the C4 syrups and some of the C3 syrups. Neither of these tests can determine if resin technology has been used.

This technology can remove pollen, antibiotics, and the chemicals that give honey color, and even flavor and aroma. As well as hide the botanical/geographical origin and whether nectar was extracted and/or artificially ripened into honey.

The NMR testing method for honey became available in 2013. It is capable of detecting, what the first two are not. However, the evaluation relies on having a ‘database’ of honey samples to compare against. Testing companies each have their own database, so results can differ between different labs. Additionally, as more samples are added to a database, interpretations can change

As you can see in the National Honey Board (NHB) comparison, when this test is combined with the LC-HRMS test, there is a high level of detection for adulteration, resin processing, and the origin of the honey.

The fourth test, the HRMS test, is the most recently developed test and not yet widely used. It is not included on the NHB comparison; however, it can detect all compounds foreign to honey and it identifies more than 400 known adulterant compounds.

 It is hopeful to think these laboratory tests will reduce the amount of adulterated honey on the market. However, lab tests are not likely to be utilized by honey customers to ensure they have pure honey. Although the home tests are not reliable, they probably ease the mind of consumers who try them.

It seems the best answer to my question of “How to tell if honey is pure, unadulterated honey” is that of ½ those polled: Know Your Beekeeper (or become one)!

*Facebook Links:

Central Texas Beekeepers

Texas Friendly Beekeepers

Lynne Jones is owner of Brazos River
Honey Secretary-Treasurer of the Fort
Bend Beekeepers Association and Advanced
 level in the Texas Master Beekeeper program
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