In 1974, ABBA sang, “Honey honey, don’t conceal it, a-ha, honey honey”. Many decades later, Indian media discovered what was really concealed in the honey — Chinese sugar. The Centre for Science and Environment or CSE food researchers have found that most honey sold in the Indian market is adulterated. Some have called this India’s ‘Honeygate’. Dabur, Patanjali, Baidyanath, Zandu have all reportedly failed the purity test.
This comes at a time when India is using copious amounts of honey and concoctions made with it to ward off the novel coronavirus. But something else ticked off the CSE to launch an investigation — why were honey farmers in north India reporting a massive dip in profits when the sales of honey had hit the roof?
The CSE has alleged that Indian honey companies had designed their products to pass the regulations laid down by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), but it was a German lab that saw through the tinkering with sugar syrup. The brands have rejected the findings and called it an attempt to malign them.
What’s more, even the bees are not having it easy as the world desperately tries to keep several species from going extinct. If bees go out of business, a part of our food chain collapses.
And that’s why honey, the golden liquid, is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
India is ‘honey trapped’
‘Immunity’ — that’s the word that saw a 350 per cent increase in Google searches during the lockdown. And when Indians think of immunity, honey features in the top hits. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi batted for the AYUSH ministry’s home remedies in coronavirus season, which included honey-pepper. But what if we are consuming sugar in the name of honey?
‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance’ — that’s the phrase that not many in India are googling. It’s what reportedly caught the honey adulteration that passed through undetected in Indian tests. It identifies modified sugar syrups. Out of the 13 brands tested, only three — Saffola, MarkfedSohna and Nature’s Nectar — passed this test done by the German lab.
Now, many will say the test of purity is when honey doesn’t freeze or crystallise in the fridge or in winter. Frankly, most of the honey in my kitchen cupboard have crystals.
So, how did the brands pass the FSSAI tests called C3 and C4? China has created several sugar syrups that go undetected in tests. You could buy them off Alibaba and other sites, and import them to India, some labelled as ‘paint’ to go under the radar. In Indian markets, these sugars were called ‘All Pass’. Read this deep dive in Down To Earth.
The decade before this was crowded with stories of what really goes into bottles of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. That led the CSE to blink. Reports of pesticides in the Indian drinks and more toxins than in the beverages of the developed world were heaped on the cola giants. In 2012, Ramdev accused the drinks of being ‘toilet cleaners’ — a story that stuck. Now Patanjali and its honey are on the CSE’s radar.
“It is a food fraud more nefarious and more sophisticated than what we found in our 2003 and 2006 investigations into soft drinks; more damaging to our health than perhaps anything that we have found till now — keeping in mind the fact that we are still fighting against a killer Covid-19 pandemic with our backs to the wall. This overuse of sugar in our diet will make it worse,” CSE’s Sunita Narain told Business Today.
The CSE realised that raw honey adulterated to even 50 per cent of the content passed the Indian tests. On 1 August this year, India made the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance test mandatory for all honey exports — surely something was up.
“The recent reports seem motivated and aimed at maligning our brand. We assure our consumers that Dabur Honey is 100% Pure. It is 100% indigenous, collected naturally from Indian sources and packed with no added sugar or other adulterants,” a Dabur spokesperson told ThePrint. Dabur has also said that its honey sample had indeed passed an earlier NMR test. Others said it was an attempt to lower market share of Indian honey.
The Indian Express reported that according to data from the National Bee Board, India exported 1.05 lakh metric tonnes of honey in 2017-18, a 200 per cent jump in 12 years. The government also gives a considerable sum to bee farming.
Honey is one of the most adulterated food products in the world. But it’s time to put our money where the honey’s at. Because buzz of adulteration won’t sit well with honey consumers. And consume we have, since time immemorial.
Land of milk and honey
The Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh have prehistoric cave paintings that show people breaking beehives formed on rocks. T.K. Achaya, the go-to person when it comes to India’s food history, writes that these paintings can be dated to 6,000 BC. Honey was also a regular in Harappan kitchens, often tossed with puffed rice or flax seeds.
The Rigveda points to Indians cultivating honey from artificial hives made for bees. One hymn (187) goes like this: “O sweet food, honeyed food, we have chosen for you: for us be a helper” (Feasts and Fasts, Colleen Taylor Sen). The Mahabharata has references to beekeepers — suggesting that honey was quite a commodity by then. It also has references to feasts of meat curries bubbling in ghee with honey and fruits on the side.
When we were growing up, we were told tales of Sundarban’s honey farmers who would go into the dense swamps to collect forest honey. They would go in groups, sing to ward off predators, carry sticks, and wear a tiger mask on the back of their heads. Why? Because a tiger attacks when you are not looking. So a pair of eyes behind your head was important.
It’s the forest produce or small farmers and beekeepers that most people in India are now turning to after allegations of adulteration in commercial brands. The FSSAI has announced that it is looking into the CSE’s findings.
The bees aren’t waiting.
Views are personal.