Jun 21

What’s funny about your honey?

This blog continues our series highlighting how scientists at LGC are addressing measurement challenges to support regulation in the food industry and inform customer decisions during the Government Chemist Conference, Science supporting trust in food, starting today (21 June 2016).

Honey dripping isolated on whiteHoney is known to have multiple health and nutritional benefits and is in high demand among consumers. It is defined as the natural sweet substance produced by bees and there is significant regulation around the composition and labelling of honey in order to protect consumers from food fraud. However, due to the declining numbers of bees, the impact of weather conditions on supply and the high costs production, honey is expensive. This makes it a prime target for economically-motivated food fraud.

There are two types of food fraud associated with honey: adulteration and fraudulent labelling. Honey adulteration typically occurs by substituting honey for cheaper sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, cane or beet sugar syrup. Fraudulent labelling occurs because honeys from a particular geographic or botanical source, such as Manuka, command premium prices amongst consumers. Detecting these types of fraud presents a significant measurement challenge for food regulators: adulterated products show very similar physical and chemical properties to pure honey  and mis-labelled products are pure honey, just of lower quality.

It is possible to identify food fraud in honey using a technique called isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IR-MS), which measures small but observable variations in the ratios of the two stable isotopes of carbon (C-13 and C-12). Sugars, although chemically identical, have a different isotopic signature depending on the way in which the plant processes carbon dioxide. As the majority of honey-source plants use a different pathway than plant sugars typically used as honey adulterants, it is possible to detect adulteration using IR-MS. The specific geographic origin of the plants also plays a role in the isotopic fingerprint and IR-MS can be used to help determine where honeys originated.

However, in order that these types of measurements are robust and reliable in detecting food fraud across the supply chain the comparability of results is critical. To support this, LGC co-ordinated an international comparison study for isotope ratios in honey involving 6 national measurement institutes (NMIs) and 6 expert laboratories (contacted via the FIRMS (Forensic Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry Network) and the results between participants showed good comparability.

Ensuring the safety and authenticity of the food we eat is of paramount importance and there is growing concern, both at the EU and global level, to ensure the quality control of food to protect the health and safety of consumers. Demonstrating the comparability of isotope ratio measurements is crucial to detecting many types of food fraud and supporting food authenticity claims, of which honey is just one example. The international study coordinated by LGC demonstrates the measurement framework is in place to support food fraud regulation in the future .


The topics of food safety and security, including further detail around this work, are being discussed at the Government Chemist Conference ‘Science supporting trust in food’ on 21-22 June 2016. #trustinfoodGC16

LGC produces a 13C/12C certified reference material (ERM-AE672a), the first SI-traceable material certified for absolute carbon isotope ratios. The material is available to purchase through LGC Standards, for further information please contact our sales team.

LGC, the UK’s Designated Institute for chemical and bio-measurement

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