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Honey Analyses: Using NMR to Reduce Fraud

An interview with Jim Gawenis, CEO of Sweetwater Science Labs

Please outline the methods you use to identify adulterated honey.

The AOAC 998 method, also referred to as the C4 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.

Why NMR?

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?

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.