Adulteration Antidotes: How Historical Honey Authenticity Shapes Today’s Standards

Adulteration Antidotes: How Historical Honey Authenticity Shapes Today’s Standards

Executive Summary:

  • Honey has been valued as a sweet and precious commodity since ancient times. Records indicate that that honey was diluted and blended as early as the first century AD.
  • Today, honey adulteration is sophisticated and includes diluting, blending honey with other sugar syrups, and feeding the bees sugar instead of nectar, to name a few.
  • As honey fraud incidents come to light, regulations are slowly catching up in an attempt to preserve the authentic honey market and protect consumers from fake, and even dangerous, honey.
  • Scientists are working hard to establish accurate honey analysis tests that can identify adulterated honey—it is an ever-evolving field of research.
  • Selecting honey products that are tested by regulatory bodies, clearly labeled, and offer a detailed breakdown of the honey’s nutrients is the best way to ensure you are enjoying authentic honey. 


Honey Authenticity: Past to Present Standards

Honey has been prized as a natural sweetener, religious symbol, and valuable commodity for millennia. Today, it continues to grow in popularity as a health food and natural sweetener. Sadly, as this demand grows and its value increases, so does the temptation to dilute it and fake it—primarily, to make more money. 

Ensuring the purity and authenticity of honey remains a global challenge—one that scientists and beekeepers are working hard to overcome. So, let’s explore this topic in more detail. How has history shaped adulteration and today’s honey standards?


The Sweet History of Honey

Honey has been valued and sought after since the beginning of civilization. 10,000-year-old cave paintings in Spain describe how hunters of honey would risk their lives and climb to great heights to gather the golden liquid.

Honey played a major role in the lives of many ancient peoples. Archaeological evidence gives us insight into the uses of honey thousands of years ago:

  • 2,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptians enjoyed honey as part of their diet and used it in their mummification process, sacrifices, and numerous traditional health remedies. 
  • The Ancient Greeks labeled honey as the food of the gods, and Hippocrates recommended it as a supportive health food.
  • The Ancient Romans valued its beneficial properties and considered honey so valuable that they used it to trade with—you could even pay your taxes with it. 

Unfortunately, as honey became a valuable trade commodity, so did the temptation to blend and dilute it.


Early Forms of Honey Adulteration

Blending and diluting honey has been around for at least two thousand years. 

Early evidence of honey adulteration in the first century appears in the classical text of Apicius—a famous Roman known for luxurious living. His book, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome explains how poor honey could be restored to saleable quality by blending it with good honey. Another Roman in the 1st century, Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and philosopher, detailed how honey had at times been diluted with vinegar in his book The Complete Works of Pliny the Elder.

However, these days, producers have come up with more sophisticated ways of adulterating honey—many of which aren’t easy to detect.

6 Common Methods of Honey Adulteration

Today, honey is adulterated in a few different ways. The goal of honey fraud is always to produce greater volumes of honey that appear to be authentic. Here are the most common types of honey adulteration:

  1. The honey is diluted with water or a more affordable sugar syrup like corn or rice syrup that mimics honey very closely. These syrups contain none of the goodness of authentic honey.
  2. High-quality monofloral honey is blended with low-quality honey.
  3. Incorrect descriptions or mislabeling of honey makes it appear more valuable to consumers.
  4. Honey can also be adulterated indirectly, where the honey bees are fed sugar—which lacks the nutrient profile of nectar—and produce a greater yield of “fake” honey as a result.
  5. Honey that is contaminated with antibiotics that keep bees healthy but harm humans is another form of adulteration.
  6. Harvesting unripe honey is another way to boost production without providing mature honey.

While honey adulteration deceives consumers, it also impacts their health negatively. In fact, growing instances of honey adulteration have led to stricter regulations in an attempt to preserve the authentic honey industry and protect consumers.


Rise of Authenticity Standards

Honey is the third most adulterated food in the world. Here are some key points on the modern timeline of honey fraud.

  • Despite honey adulteration being around for hundreds of years, it was only recognized as a global concern in 1889. It was then that Dr. Harvey Wiley of the US Department of Agriculture declared before the US Congress that honey was the most adulterated food product in the US. Regulations were successfully introduced to combat the issue.
  • During the 20th century, it came to light that honey imported from China contained harmful antibiotics and lead. This led to bans and import duties on Chinese honey. Unfortunately, Chinese producers bypassed these limitations and saved millions of dollars in fees by exporting their honey through other countries to cover up its origin.
  • In 1990, in response to global concern about honey adulteration, the International Honey Commission was formed to revise the standards for honey in support of regulatory authorities.
  • In 2001, under the umbrella of the United Nations, the Codex Alimentarius Commission published recommended standards for authentic honey including its composition, drug and contaminant levels, and accurate labeling.
  • In 2005, the EU put forward recommendations for the definition and testing of honey to determine its authenticity.
  • In 2012, one of the greatest cases of honey fraud came to light. It was proven that a top importer of honey, ALW, was marketing Chinese honey riddled with antibiotics as pure Russian honey. 


Modern Measures and Manuka Milestones

With the advancement of scientific analysis, testing and guaranteeing the authenticity of honey is an ever-growing field. Modern scientific tests include the determination of the different chemical compounds present in honey using chromatography, spectroscopic, and isotopic techniques. Their goal is to identify contaminants and diluents and pinpoint evidence of the honey’s botanical and geographical region (the fingerprint of each type of honey).

Laboratory analysis using advanced methods tests honey samples for:

  • Quantities of specific compounds unique to honey
  • Compounds unique to adulterants: other syrups and chemical additives 
  • Traces of pollen—which help confirm the origin of honey

Additionally, certain types of honey undergo various other testings for purity., accountability, and quality For instance, Manuka honey—a rare and valuable honey from New Zealand—is subject to extensive testing by the local government before exporting. The honey tested must adhere to the detailed scientific definition of honey provided by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).


The Manukora Standard

At Manukora, we are passionate about providing consumers with authentic Manuka honey. In addition to the approval by the local regulatory body, the MPI, we provide a QR code on each jar of honey that details the exact composition of bioactive nutrients that make Manukora honey unique—even detailing what hive the honey was harvested from.

Each jar of Manukora honey is naturally unique and we believe our customers deserve an open window into Manukora honey harvesting and our ethical beekeeping practices. Manukora is committed to quality and traceability—it is authentic honey you can trust.


The Future of Honey Authenticity

As it stands, the scientific tests required to authenticate honey are time-consuming and expensive and cannot be feasibly conducted on every honey product on the global market. 

The future of honey authenticity will hopefully see:

  • Each country providing a specific scientific definition of honey that must be adhered to in both importing and exporting practices
  • Portable, accurate honey authenticity tests that can be conducted more frequently—without the need for a lab
  • Greater consumer awareness and boycotting of cheap, poorly labeled honey products

The greatest influence on the authentic honey market is consumer demand. By insisting on genuine, tested, and true honey products, you can support the authentic honey market and preserve honey’s legacy as a nutritious, natural, and beneficial food. With your help, the timeless legacy of honey’s beneficial nutrients and yumminess can live on for another thousand years.


Honey: Its history and religious significance: A review - ResearchGate

The Book of Apicius - Apicius

A comprehensive review of the current trends and recent advancements on the authenticity of honey - ScienceDirect

The Toxic Impact of Honey Adulteration: A Review - PMC

The Scourge of Honey Fraud - Economist

The History of Honey Fraud - Apiservices

Honey Quality, Methods of Analysis and International Regulatory Standards - Agroscope

Ongoing Efforts to Address Fraud and Adulteration of Honey - FAS

United States v. Alfred L. Wolff GMBH - Casetext

Manuka Honey Testing - MPI NZ

Honey authenticity: analytical techniques, state of the art and challenges - PMC

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