Most Brits will be familiar with honey as a tasty toast topper often mixed into yoghurt or used to sweeten tea.
But an expert has revealed most honey sold in the UK is fake and designed to trick the customer into believing their eating a natural healthy product when in reality it is a blend of extremely unhealthy and unnatural sugar syrups illegally made in Chinese factories and imported to the UK.
Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL, London-based honey sommelier Sarah Wyndham- Lewis revealed that so called ‘honey-laundering’ is so widespread in Europe that ten million hives are at risk of dying out. She added the issue is particularly bad in the UK because 86 percent of the 50,000 tonnes of honey consumed by Brits in imported.
Sarah, who runs sustainable beekeeping practice Bermondsey Street Bees with her beekeeper husband, added that honey is a luxury good and real honey can cost up to £8 a jar – and that it should be treated as a luxury good because it takes 12 bees their whole lifetime to make just one teaspoon of honey.
However, honey-laundering is now so widespread that budget supermarkets are selling it for as little as 80p – far lower than the cost of production (about £3.50 per kilo).
Sarah supplies top restaurants, five-star hotels, Michelin-starred chefs and big-name bartenders with honey. But she says most consumers have no idea about the ‘horror’ they’re buying from supermarkets .
She told FEMAIL: ‘The entire industry is constructed to stop the consumer spotting it because obviously it wouldn’t be a good fake if people could spot it.
‘Honey fraud is one of the most pervasive food frauds there has been in history. It’s up there with wine and olive oil as the three most frequently fraudulently produced and sold products of earth.’.
Honey-laundering is now so widespread that budget supermarkets are selling it for as little as 80p – far lower than the cost of production
‘Essentially, lots and lots of different levels of fraud.
‘Unfortunately, it’s not like the horsemeat scandal. People could just put that meat under a microscope and go “that’s not beef, that’s horsemeat”
‘With honey. It’s much much more sophisticated than that because you’ve got huge factories principally in China, who are making tailor made syrup and they are designed to mimic honey and to pass the tests.
The problem is global, in 2013 the US Justice Department charged two major honey importers in ‘Operation Honeygate’ – which became the biggest incident of food fraud in US history.
Honey Solutions and Groeb Farms – the importers – avoided $180 million in shipping duties after they shipped honey through Asian and European countries before selling it in the US – hiding its true origin.
Almost a decade later, not much has changed – and the UK could soon be looking at its biggest case of food fraud since the horsemeat scandal.
The UK alone buys 47 per cent of Europe’s honey imports from China meaning fake honey, which often contains a small amount of real honey blended with high-fructose corn syrups is rife on supermarket shelves.
An analysis from the Honey Authenticity Project lab of 11 UK supermarket brands found that none complied with EU labelling standards and couldn’t be called ‘real honey’.
An analysis from the Honey Authenticity Project lab of 11 UK supermarket brands found that none complied with EU labelling standards and couldn’t be called ‘real honey’ (stock image)
Tests conducted on own-brand honeys from Co-op, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda in 2020 suggest they have been bulked out with cheap syrups made from rice and corn – without the retailers’ knowledge.
If the analysis, using a new generation of ‘nuclear magnetic resonance’ tests, is proven, it would represent the UK’s biggest food fraud since the horsemeat scandal in 2013.
How to see if your honey is fake
LOOK AT THE LABEL
The easiest way to check for honey is to look at the label, Sarah says.
Anything that says blend should be avoided, particularly if it indicated there are non-EU honeys.
‘Checking labels is certainly not the way people in the honey industry will be testing honey.
‘But at consumer level it’s the best clue you’re going to get that that honey has been processed in the factory rather than made by bees.
‘Real honey is made in behind by bees and supermarket honey is made by food scientists in a factory’
There are other ways to check to however honey scammers are ‘ahead of the game’ so can often bypass these checks…
Real honey isn’t sticky. You can test this by rubbing it between your fingers.
Fake honey will stick due to the sweeteners and syrups inside.
When heated, real honey will quickly become thicker.
Fake honey will make foam
That squeezy runny honey over by kids? It’s definitely not real.
Real honey is thick in texture and will take time to move around the jar.
Fake honey is very runny and quickly spills and moves around the jar.
You can test this by looking at how long it it takes to travel from one side of a honey jar to the other.
If you spread honey on a slice of bread, real honey will harden within around 60 seconds while fake honey will never harden, due to added moisture.
Honey should have a mild or floral scent which can change when heated up or cooled down.
If there’s no smell, it’s likely fake.
Real honey isn’t always sweet – and is the honey is sickly and sugary, it’s probably fake.
Sarah explains: ‘Sweetness is not really always the primary thing you get from it. Real honey can be so it can be musty. It can be woody, it can be fruity, it can be all sorts of things’.
‘As a honey sommelier we have a whole vocabulary just like wine sommeliers and then you have terms that we use a sweetness is the least interesting thing about money in many respects’.
But honey importers and supermarkets insist the tests, which analyse types of sugar in honey and pick out those which came from a factory rather than bees, are inaccurate and cannot be trusted.
The UK imports 50,000 tons of honey each year – about a third of it from China – but British and EU beekeepers question how China can produce it for as little at £1.10 a kilo when it typically costs at least £3.50 in Europe.
‘This difference in prices can only be explained by large-scale addition of sugar syrup,’ Etienne Bruneau, from Copa-Cogeca, which represents European farmers, previously claimed to the Mail.
The exact amount of ‘fake honey’ in the world is up for debate, mostly because fraudster are advanced and coming up with clever ways to pass tests.
‘There is no single test that’s ever been developed that can spot absolutely every every element of honey fraud,’ Sarah explained.
‘The tests are getting more sophisticated, but they’re always a step or two behind the fraudster.
‘Honey is a massive fraud that is being perpetrated. And it’s it’s there’s a lot of money invested in it and it’s also said to be the province of organised crime.
‘If you think about it, a lot less risky than selling drugs.
‘Groups in China are taking so-called honeys from all sorts of places.
‘They may start out as being honey, but they probably don’t meet the requirements, and they blend them.
‘The product then isn’t described in its flavours, it’s defined by three things, the colour, the viscosity, the price of it.
The easiest way for a consumer to get honey is to look at the label.
Sarah advices avoiding anything with the word ‘blend’ on it – as ‘there’s never any reason to blend honey’.
In particular, avoid anything that says ‘blend of non-EU honeys’ as this indicates it may be full of sugar syrups.
Some estimations say these Chinese factories are now making more honey than all the bees in the world.
Over the past two decades, global production has increased nearly 50 per cent.
During the same period, the number of farmed beehives has increased, too — but by less than 30 per cent to about 90 million, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Beekeepers warn that cheap imports threaten to put them out of business, meaning fewer bees to pollinate crops, wildflowers and trees — risking ecological disaster.
Yet in Britain we are eating record amounts of honey.
Sales grew 20 per cent last year and were worth £150 million, according to data company Kantar. The problem is that booming sales have attracted fraudsters.
Expensive Manuka honey, which comes from New Zealand and Australia and is used by celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, was the first to be exposed. Only 2,500 tons are produced annually — but 10,000 tons are sold.
Police intelligence confirms fraudsters are targeting cheaper honeys. And beekeepers from Europe to South America allege the adulteration originates largely in China — the world’s biggest honey-producing nation. It sends 36,000 tons a year to Britain (its biggest global customer).
‘Supermarket honey, which is essentially made as somebody has specified “I want this colour. This is how it should work. In terms of its viscosity, and it’s got this price point’.
‘Aldi and Lidl that can be as low as something pence at 86 pence per jar of honey, which is so far below the the actual cost of production – and it doesn’t pass the test.
Anything that says blend should be avoided, particularly if it indicated there are non-EU honeys (pictured)
‘We put supermarket honey through the same battery of tests we put our own honey so that we’ve got markers and time and time again it comes up as being having sugars in it that had nothing to do with the bees.
Honey-laundering is bad for the bees too – who play a huge part in maintaining broader agriculture.
Which supermarket honeys are fake? And how can you find real honey
Honey Authenticity Project released a study in 2020 that revealed 13 brands of honey were subjected to more than 240 tests by FoodQS, an accredited laboratory in Germany.
It found nine products, including Tesco Clear Honey 340g and Co-op Clear Honey 454g, contained psicose, a sugar that does not normally occur naturally in honey and is a marker for possible syrup adulteration.
Ten of the 13, including Asda Set Pure Honey and Sainsbury’s Clear Honey, tested positive for the presence of enzymes indicating that they may be ‘adulterated with inverted syrup’.
Bernd Kampf, managing director of FoodQS, said: ‘We have detected in all samples more than one sign of an adulteration. Some show many positive results for adulteration.’
Sarah said a good way to find real honeyi s to look online to the British Beekeepers Association to look up your local hives.
‘These people have open days and they have sales and they have all sorts of things and lots of opportunity to connect with people in your area who are producing delicious local honey. ‘
‘In many Asian countries, honey is often harvested too early,’ wrote Professors Norberto Garcia and Stephan Schwarzinger in Food Fraud, a new academic textbook.
‘This unripe honey usually lacks the typical taste and odour associated with honey and has far too high a water content.’
Garcia, a bee physiologist at Universidad Nacional Del Sur in Argentina, and Schwarzinger, a food chemist at Bayreuth University in Germany, added: ‘Water content of the immature product must be reduced before export in so-called honey factories that also filter to eliminate veterinary drug and pesticide residues.’
The honey is then typically sent to factories for blending with different honeys — and potentially other substances, too, such as cheap rice syrup.
Some scientists question if such a substance can be called honey at all — under the legal definition, it has to be stored ‘in honeycombs to ripen and mature’. Factories in China even advertise adulterants online. ‘Fructose syrup for honey,’ says an advert on the online trading giant Alibaba, claiming it can pass tests to identify adulterated honey.
Such practices are known to the Chinese authorities, who say they are working hard to detect them.
‘Honey should be an absolutely a picture postcard of that time, that place that forage and that’s what they’re bringing back,’ Sarah explains.
‘So if you’re then taking the honey as a single version not blending it, that’s going to be perfect picture.
‘What I’m concerned with as a honey sommelier is the quality of that honey in terms of flavour and its nose, the same thing wine sommeliers are concerned about.’
Sarah doesn’t believe fake honey should be banned, but instead labelling should be changed to make it clear it’s not a natural product.
‘It’s not my call if people want to buy very highly processed products.
‘But the real thing isn’t the thing that contains all the wonderful properties and flavours of nutrients that you don’t get in fake honey.
‘The fact there’s just not a commodity. So you can you can do this rendered offering.
‘You can take caviar and fish eggs as an example. You can get those both in the supermarket – and some people call fish eggs, caviar but it isn’t because caviar comes from sturgeons.
‘It’s a sort of similar thing. It can’t be hurried. They’re not designed to be a commodified substance.
‘We shouldn’t be banning honey because that becomes undemocratic and unhelpful. What we should be doing is seeking to define it better.
‘So we have a really good model in the maple syrup industry. You could have two products sitting next door to each other one is a very cheap product that is clearly labelled “maple flavoured syrup”. And the other that is a provenance product sitting next to it probably costing five times as much.
‘If honey has its authenticity assured by a given body, the problem at point of sale goes away.’