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Authenticating Honey with NMR: An Untargeted Analytical Technique for a Complex Product

Honey has been a natural sweetener in the human diet for thousands of years. Today consumers are increasingly seeking out honey for its many health benefits. The growing awareness of the medicinal properties of honey have increased its economic value but have also made it a more vulnerable adulteration target. The complex nature of honey requires fit for purpose analytical techniques like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to verity its purity and validate that the ingredients on the label match what’s in the honey pot.

Varieties of Honey

Honey is made naturally by honeybees collecting the nectar of flowers. There are hundreds of honey varieties. A beekeeper can create hives in fields with only one kind of flower, resulting in monofloral honeys such as clover, avocado, tupelo, blueberry and many more. When bees visit multiple plants, polyfloral honeys are created: these may be combinations of many nectars, with multiple combinations of tastes and benefits. Local honeys tend to be polyfloral, resulting in unique flavor profiles reflecting their regions.

Honey can also be harvested and processed in different ways. Most grocery stores sell pasteurized honey: pasteurization may extend shelf life and kill some bacteria, however raw honey is believed to offer more health benefits. Raw honey has not been heated during processing.

Many Uses of Honey

In addition to sugar, honey contains a mix of amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins and over 30 minerals including magnesium and potassium. Honey is used as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent, and to treat coughs, burns and to promote wound healing.

Widespread Adulteration of Honey

In the 1970s, to create less expensive honey food products, manufacturers began to add cheaper sugars to honey such as high fructose corn syrup. Adulterated honey may contain some real honey, but what has been added to it or how it has been processed degrades the quality, taste, and health benefits. Adulteration can happen in the following ways:

  • Blending: Blending became popular with the creation of corn syrup. Today, syrups made from corn, cane sugar, rice, and other crops are used to dilute honey. Other adulterants are water, banana, wheat, or flour.
  • Supplemental Feeding: Bees are sometimes fed sugar syrups to encourage increased production. This means the honey is made from processed sugars instead of only plants and pollen.
  • Harvesting too early: Honey isn’t ready to eat as soon as the nectar hits the hive. This unripe honey hasn’t received time in the hive required to be shelf stable and nutritious

As awareness has grown of honey’s health benefits, the demand for natural and pure honeys has increased. Consumers are looking for quality products, and producers painstakingly manage beehives to create them. Without authentication, however, producers struggle to command their prices as they are forced to compete with adulterated products, and consumers unknowingly purchase lower quality honey.

Honey and NMR

The complex nature of honey needs verification techniques like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). NMR has the analytic power to identify and quantify each of the product’s components and provide detailed information about the honey’s mixture of sugars, amino acids, organic acids, vitamins, and minerals.

NMR is a powerful analytical tool that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to study the molecular structure of compounds. It has gained popularity in the food industry, particularly in the analysis of honey. Since NMR is a non-targeted analytical technique, it is used to understand the complete chemical composition of a sample. NMR testing reveals:

  • Other ingredients that have been blended into the honey
  • The flower source(s) of the nectar
  • The presence of pollen, royal jelly and propolis

As a non-targeted analytical technique, for any sample, NMR can provide information such as:

  • A comprehensive picture of the metabolomic profile of a product versus targeted methods that focus only on specific, pre-defined targets
  • Detailed information about the chemical composition of a product
  • The quantification of compounds present in a sample
  • The presence of adulterants

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