For the past year, Aseem Hattangadi, a home chef in Mumbai, has been buying honey from friends who aggregate it from a single, ‘clean’ source. The latter, coupled with tastings in places like Dubai, made him realise that brand is no longer important to him as long as the source is good, clean and preservative-free, and his purchase supports local producers. Last week, he realised the wisdom of his choice after reading a Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report that alleged adulteration of honey with rice syrup.
The CSE report has literally stirred the beehive. Out of samples of 13 brands, 10 allegedly contained traces of rice syrup and failed the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) test, which checks for adulteration and confirms the origin of honey. These two tests are not currently part of the parameters set by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). While the NMR test is not required by the Indian law for honey sold locally, it is necessary for export, according to a report in The Hindu.
The CSE team alleges that honey is being adulterated with sugar syrups imported from China, now also manufactured in India. “The sugar syrups are sold on portals like Alibaba with names such as rice fructose syrup, tapioca fructose syrup, golden syrup fructose syrup, and more,” explains Sonal Dhingra, deputy programme manager, food safety and toxins, CSE. “These claim to pass all the adulteration tests: C4, C3, foreign oligosaccharides, SMR and TMR. And these are being imported under the HS (harmonised system) code of fructose or glucose.” These are also manufactured in India as “all pass syrup”.
The past few days have seen a series of responses and refutations by various brands. FSSAI, while taking note of the study, has asked why its prescribed tests, such as the “more sensitive” Specific Marker for Rice syrup (SMR), were not conducted on the samples.
All this begs the question: what is pure honey and what goes, or should not go, into it?
“Everyone knows it is impossible to produce thousands of bottles of pure honey, with each one tasting the same. Agro climate leads to changes in the taste of honey, if it is all natural. To get uniform-tasting honey means some kind of manipulation has been done,” says Stan Thekaekara, a social entrepreneur associated with Just Change India, a producer company, incorporated in 2004, which aims to create an alternative economic structure based on a direct community-to-community model. Just Change has been working with the Kattunayakans, traditional honey foragers in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, who scale 60-feet trees and cliffs yawning into deep gorges. It is part of the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (AMS), a membership-based tribal organisation comprising 4,000 families.
Gaurav Ladwal of the Ladwal Foundation, which works with Kumaon Organics in Uttarakhand, concurs that natural honey won’t taste the same across batches. He has known brands to mix 10 to 15 different kinds of honey, made of invert and artificial sugar instead of flower nectar, aggregated from across the country. These are then boiled together till the good bacteria is destroyed “and at the end all you are left with is sugar”.
“The honey market is a bit murky and it is something everyone has known for a long time,” says Rohan Rehani, founder of Moonshine Meadery, which offers Moonshine Honey. He started the brand as a passion project while looking for honey to make mead and realised that the quality of commercial honey was simply not good. So, in 2016, Rehani enrolled at the Central Bee Research and Training Institute of India to learn beekeeping. He started the Moonshine Honey Project last year to work directly with beekeepers and build the brand’s own supply chain, encourage small farmers to become part-time beekeepers to supplement income, and to educate the consumer about good quality honey.
Moonshine has now hired a full-time beekeeper, who goes from state to state, wherever flowering season is taking place. Today, a Moonshine honey bottle even contains the exact coordinates of where the bee boxes have been kept. “We have started with a small batch of 500 bottles to test the market," he says. "Since the feedback on our honey has been great, we're planning to scale up multifold the number of bee boxes we deploy in the field." And the extra honey will be going into Moonshine's mead making processes.
In the case of natural honey, the flower has a huge impact on the taste, colour and viscosity, and this varies from season to season. Kumaon Organics has a variety which is made when a particular bee feeds on wild jamun grown in the Himalayas.
The honey gathered by the Kattunayakans comes from two indigenous bees, Apis dorsata and Apis cerana indica, a smaller bee, which builds hives in holes in the ground. “Its honey is much sweeter. Both the bees forage on different flowers, albeit there might be overlaps. In Coorg, they predominantly forage on coffee blossoms, while in Kotagiri, they forage in jamun forests. The latter has a slightly bitter aftertaste,” says Thekaekara.
Though the market for pure honey has increased in the past five years, with more millennials travelling abroad where honey is treated as food and not just as medicine, producers wish that certain misconceptions could be cleared. “It is ingrained in people that honey doesn’t crystallise. People feel that it contains sugar and hence it is crystallising. Even retailers have that mindset. They ask us to take it back. But honey crystallising is a sign that it is natural,” says Vijaya Pastala, founder of Under The Mango Tree (UTMT).
Both consumers and retailers want uniform looking honey. If it looks slightly different, they shun it. For instance, some honey from UTMT, a for-profit brand, whose core goal for the past 10 years has been to offer livelihood to farmers, is high on pollen and hence has a black film on top. “Retailers don’t understand. We have been very clear that we only want to deliver 100% pure honey to consumers,” she adds. It is for this reason that UTMT has invested in tests, even going for the NMR test at a German lab. “These tests are not cheap. Then we get questions like why is your honey so expensive,” says Pastala.
Its sister concern, UTMT Society is a not-for-profit, which trains small farmers in beekeeping with indigenous bees such as Apis dorsata, Apis cerana indica, Apis florea and Trigona, a stingless bee. “The brand offers a market avenue to all the honey coming out from UTMT Society. It is not limited to UTMT beekeepers alone but open to beekeepers and farmers in other states as well,” Pastala adds.
Reports like the one by CSE have also drawn attention to the level of enforcement of food standards in India, or the lack of it. “And by standards, I don’t mean homogenising a product,” says Kurush Dalal, a Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. “Random testing is done. What you see on the label is not what you get. Some details are craftily hidden while some unnecessary truths are exaggerated.” He cites the example of toothpaste brands, which claim to be 100% vegetarian. “Have you ever come across a non-veg toothpaste? This is bogus marketing!” says Dalal. “But the truth of the matter is also that we don’t want to pay extra for a top product unless it is coming from outside.”
Dhingra feels there is a need for a system of traceability and transparency across the honey supply chain. Every producer must know their bees: the botanical source of all the honey produced along with the geographical location of the apiary should be traceable to the stakeholders including the consumer. “Each entity in the supply chain such as the collector, trader, packer or seller should keep a record of required details, which should be open for inspection. The government should also have its own system to trace all the honey produced by beekeepers in the country,” says Dhingra.
Slowly and steadily consumers are turning to brands which don’t just offer an assurance of pure honey but are also responsible in the way they process the product. “Organisations which work with impoverished communities try for access to urban mainstream markets. Their focus is on increasing the product price instead of what reaches the producer,” Thekaekara elaborates. “But no matter how much the increase in price, the cost of living increases faster. And producers remain the passive recipient of these models instead of active participants. Hence they remain as impoverished as ever.” Just Change has been trying to create alternative local markets based on the premise that producers are also consumers—adivasis who produce tea are also consumers of rice, oil, pepper, and more, produced by another community.
The organisation also wants to motivate the Kattunayakan tribe to go back to its original and sustainable practice of honey gathering, which has eroded over time due to its lack of access to the forests. “With nationalisation of forest reserves, the communities that used to dwell within were shut out. It is only recently that their rights were recognised under the forest rights act,” says Thekaekara.
The community now collects honey peacefully, first taking permission from the spirits of the groves and mountains to ascend. Only the lower part of the hive is cut so that the bees can rebuild it subsequently. For them being one with nature is more important than “mainstream capitalism”. AMS works with 200 gatherers, who bring the raw honey to the collection centres where it is weighed and paid for on the spot. The community is also involved with the processing and filtration.
Thousands of kilometres away in Kumaon, Uttarakhand, one can find a community of women farmers working with the brand Kumaon Organics. These small agricultural producers, who specialise in seasonal crops, have been motivated by the Ladwal Foundation to keep bee boxes at home to supplement their income. “They are based in the Champawat region along the Indo-Nepal border. Their homes are in remote locations, which have such exquisite indigenous flora. And that gives the honey a unique taste,” says Ladwal. To maintain the organic ethos of the honey, which is also USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified, care is ensured to even store the raw product in non-corrosive metal containers. No plastic is used in packaging.
Which is why such small niche brands feel disappointed when some consumers raise eyebrows about prices.
Thekaekara puts it beautifully. A Kattunayakan enters a forest after braving elephants, tigers and bears, and then uses his centuries-old knowledge of finding a hive on top of a tree or a cliff. “What price are you going to put on that knowledge and the risk that a person is taking? It is priceless,” he says.