Honey Analyses: Using NMR to Reduce Fraud

insights from industryDr. Jim GawenisCEO and Chief ChemistSweetwater Science Labs

Please give an introduction to the services offered at Sweetwater.

I'm the CEO and chief chemist at Sweetwater Science Labs, and we offer a combination of honey analyses. This includes working with the FoodScreener, analyzing for antibiotics, pesticides and also doing some work which involves looking at enzymatic actions within honey.

We're also working with a pollen DNA system where we can further determine where the honey is coming from, both geographically and botanically. Our goal is to use both the foodscreener honey profiling system along with this DNA coding system at the same time to come up with an even larger, better picture of what the honeys are doing.

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Sweetwater is the only company in the United States that currently has a honey profiling system. Although it’s new to this country, NMR is becoming the integral part detecting honey fraud.

Is there a problem with fake or impure honey in the marketplace?

There is a substantial amount of fraud and adulteration in the honey industry. The technical term for this is economic adulteration and it comes in multiple forms.

The simplest form of which is adding inverted sugars, such as corn, rice or beet syrup to stretch the honey and charge a higher price for a lower-quality product.

Another method, called water honey, is where water is added to the honey. The water is filtered to get rid of the bad flavors and then taken back out of the honey, where the honey is then sold as a different type.

Additionally, there’s ultra-filtration. This one is most commonly seen when we're working with some countries that produce a large amount of honey and are selling it at a lower price than what it takes to make the honey and maintain the bees etc.

Whenever a company or importer tries to take over a market by selling a product in that country's market for less than what it takes to produce the material, that's called dumping, and it's illegal. Typically, the way that we take care of those laws is we raise a tariff for that particular product to bring it back up to the same level so that, within that country, we have a level playing field with the importers and with their own domestic production.

The way in which these countries are trying to get around that is through what's called circumvention. A country will take their cheap honey, have a straw seller from another country sell it as if it's from that country at a lower price that normally would not be considered a dumping country.

How does filtration affect the taste of the honey?

Other than ultra-filtration, there’s also another filtration that uses ion exchange resins, and that one is used when you have a really low-quality honey that has a peppery, smoky taste – something that generally people don’t want in their honey.

When they run it through that resin, you end up with a really dark honey. They use that to change the flavor and the color profile, and it changes it well, but it also takes out all the pollen.

Please outline the methods you use to identify adulterated honey.

The AOAC 998 method, also referred to as the C3C4 sugar test, looks at a carbon 13 ratio, where the two major isotopes of carbon is Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. They're both stable, and they both occur naturally. The ratios of those two isotopes varies based on what type of plant the honey is from. The plants that bees go to have a specific signature of carbon-13 to carbon-12 as opposed to something like corn, where we get corn syrup.

You can measure the differences to a certain extent, but where the problem lies, is that method has some limitations in the limits of where you can actually use the data. Adulterators have also found other sugars that come from flowering plants similar to the plants that the bees go to, so now they can add those inverted sugars. Those sugars don't even show up in this test. You can have it over 50% beet sugar, for instance, in the honey, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference from that test.

That test is largely no longer a good functional test. One of the main reasons is you're looking at one point of data, this one ratio. How much carbon-12 versus how much carbon-13 is in this particular sample, whereas with the honey profiling system with the NMR spectra, we have a multitude of points that we can look at. We have a signature series rather than just a discrete data point, and it's a much more powerful tool.

When you have this multitude of data coming off the spectra, the chances of you being able to fake a honey at that point is vanishingly small.

What is the FoodScreener?

The FoodScreener is a nuclear magnetic resonance technique looking at the spectra of various products.

Honey has a very distinct spectrum when run through a magnetic resonance system. We can compare those spectra to other spectra of similar honeys to determine whether it has been adulterated with inverted sugars. Additionally, we can look at quality control products, such as whether it has been fermented.

Not only can we look at geographical origins, but also by running honey samples through the food screener, we are also able to answer questions relating to the floral origins of the honey.  Did the bees go to orange blossoms?  Did they go to clover? Did they go to canola?

While the database is still expanding, we have found NMR has been very good at pinpointing a lot of floral origins. It’s constantly growing and the technique is becoming an extremely powerful and quick way to identify honey authenticity.

Are you contributing to the database?

Yes, we are contributing to the database. Here in the United States, there's not many honeys in the database yet. Our job with Bruker is to create that North American database and we are working with multiple companies and beekeepers to do just that.

Sweetwater's goal is to be able to pinpoint where the honey has come from, ideally all the way down to a county level. We hope that we will even be able to regionalize down to, did that honey come from Albany, New York, or did it come from Sacramento, California?

Why is it important to know where the honey has come from?

There has been a swelling of consumer concern about where their honey is coming from and what kind of honey they are getting. People are not just satisfied with 100% honey. They want to know that it's clover honey or orange blossom honey, blueberry honey, etc.

With the honey profiler technique, we can tell you whether those honeys are from those particular origins. The beauty of the NMR system is that we don't have to have pollen in the honey to do it.

Previous techniques require a light microscope and at a high power, and involve counting pollen grains to determine where the bees have gone to. We can do this through the NMR spectrum and look at the chemistry of the honey, because the chemistry from the nectar flows through into the honey.

What are the benefits associated with using NMR?

When you use the NMR spectral system, you end up with a lot more information than you would do in any other tests, and to get the same amount of data it would cost you thousands of dollars in various tests involving different techniques and instrumentation. With NMR being used in this way, you have one technician working your one sample in the one instrument, giving you all the same data.

The timeframe with the honey profiler is 20 minutes as opposed to a week of just laboratory time. It's a much faster and easier technique.

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Who are your customers?

Our customers are primarily honey packers, retailers, or anyone in the honey industry who wants to the origins of a particular honey. Our main focus is with the packers, because they're the ones who utilize moving large amounts of these materials.

However, we are happy to work with anyone from the hobbyist beekeeper all the way through to the wholesalers and even consumers.

Where can readers find more information?

About Jim Gawenis

Dr. James (Jim) Gawenis received his PhD in Chemistry from University of Missouri in 2001 and his MEd from the University of Utah in 2008. He is currently a Research Engineer Tech at the Univesity of Missouri-Columbia, as well as the Chief Chemist at Sweetwater Science Labs.


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