82% of honey, 80% of vinegar sold in the Philippines are fake

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Nuclear tech detects food authenticity (it is not only for power plants)

About 82% of honey brands and 80% of vinegar brands sold in the Philippines are fake. Most of the honey are from sugar or corn, while vinegar had been adulterated or composed of synthetic materials.

The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) disclosed these findings based on its researches that used isotope techniques.

Yes, nuclear science does not only involve nuclear power—the controversial application of nuclear technology that is the most well known in the country. It is also used in other applications, including food authentication.

The DOSTPNRI researchers were able to uncover fraudulence in the honey and vinegar businesses in the country through the use of isotopebased analytical techniques.

This analysis allows researchers to see isotopes—elements with same number of electrons and protons but different number of neutrons—which can give clues on the origin of the substance, said the DOSTScience and Technology Information Institute (STII).


Dr. Angel Bautista VIII, Supervising Science Research Specialist and Section Head of the Nuclear Materials Research Section of DOST-PNRI, shows some of the honey products his team has studied. DOST-PNRI

The fraudulent practice in honey production, enables the manufacturers to increase the volume of their products while reducing their production costs, DOSTSTII said.

“Sixtytwo out of the 76 [82%] of honey brands that were found to be adulterated were composed of 95% sugar syrup. So, they are not actually adulterated, but they are just completely purely sugar syrup,” pointed out Dr. Angel Bautista VII, Supervising Science Research Specialist and Section Head of the Nuclear Materials Research Section of DOSTPNRI, during the release of their oneandahalfyear research in December 2020.

According to Bautista, 12 out of 16, or 75%, of local honey brands sold either in groceries or souvenir shops are “not entirely honey.”

In addition, 87% or 64 out of 74, of local honey sold online are “impure.”

However, 41 imported honey brands sold in local stores were not found to be adulterated.

The honey research found that if it is authentic, its protein content will show carbon isotopes that matches those of its sources of flowering plants and bees, Bautista explained.

However, adulterated honey have carbon isotopes which can be traced from sugarcane or corn.

“The carbon13 signature is like a fingerprint of honey, and common adulterants like sugarcane and corn are completely different from each other. Therefore, we can differentiate one from the other,” Bautista was quoted by the DOSTSTII.

“This unique isotopic signature is what we are using to tell if honey is authentic or fake,” he added.

Dr. Angel Bautista VIII, Supervising Science Research Specialist and Section Head of the Nuclear Materials Research Section of DOST-PNRI, shows the solidified honey proteins. The pellets will later be placed in a machine called Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry, which will analyze the sample and compare the sample‘s fingerprints with that of the authentic honey. DOST-PNRI

Carbon13 is the stable isotope of carbon. Carbon13 in a substance like honey can be used to trace the biological processes it went through.

“The problem is that people are being tricked,” Bautista said.

When told that many honey brands are cheap, DOSTPNRI Director Dr. Carlo Arcilla commented at a virtual news conference in December: “If it [price tag of honey] is very cheap, it is very fake.”


A DOST-PNRI researcher conducting analysis of vinegar samples using the liquid scintillation counter. DOST-PNR

In the case of vinegar, Raymond Sucgang, section head of the DOSTPNRI’s Nuclear Analytical Techniques Applications Section, said, “Condiments usually undergo the process of fermentation, and the raw materials must come from fruits and other natural products.”

Sucgang’s team, which disclosed its research result in May 2019, said they distinguished vinegar and other condiments from natural or plantbased sources from those which are derived from petroleumbased sources, a news release said.  

He said petroleum byproducts can have impurities and residues.

He explained that isotope technique helped detect the adulteration in vinegar through radiocarbon assay using carbon14.

Natural vinegar from plants will have traces of carbon with natural radioactivity, unlike those made from synthetic raw materials, he added.


Vinegar is an acetic acid from fermented plants that have their specific isotopic signature, explained Arcilla in an interview with the Philippines Graphic on Jan. 18.

He added that acetic acid can also come from nonorganic sources like purified petroleum.

Arcilla explained that it is not bad if the acetic acid would come whether from plants or “purified petroleum” because they have the same chemical application.

The problem is if it would come from petroleum with impurities.

“In the US, they make distinction between natural vinegar and vinegar from petroleum. It is in labelling,” he said.

In the Philippines, vinegar is known to be sourced from plants, such as coconut, cane or nipa palm.

“But some producers use cheap industrially produced acetic acid, the refined or processed petroleum” and label the product as vinegar, without indicating they are from petroleum, he said.


A DOST-PNRI researcher places the sample honey in the equipment which rotates the samples until their protein content solidifies into pellets/crumbs. DOST-PNR

The P4.26million honeyauthentication project’s primary motivation started with DOSTPNRI’s collaboration with Dr. Cleofas Cervancia, professor emeritus of University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Cleofas is a foremost bee and honey scientist in the Philippines and a very active officer of several beekeeping associations in the country and abroad.

“The problem of adulterated honey was already known then, but it was not clear how bad the problem was. Through our stable isotopic testing capabilities in DOSTPNRI, we had the opportunity to answer this question and potentially provide a solution to the problem,” Bautista told the Philippines Graphic on Jan. 18.

It boosts immunity and is used for traditional cures because of its antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Especially in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, people resort to various preventive measures and cures to increase their immunity against the coronavirus. These options include honey.

Bautista said that impure honey can seriously damage the local industry because it can pull down the price of the product.

Fake honey can be sold as low as onethird of the original price of the authentic honey.

“Imagine, incomes that are supposed to be for our honest beekeepers and honey producers are being lost due to adulteration and fraud. This is affecting our local honey industry so badly that we estimate that they are losing P200 million per year,” Bautista lamented.


Both the findings on honey and vinegar were submitted to the Department of AgricultureBureau of Agriculture and Fisheries Standards (DABAFS) and the Food and Drug Administration.

Bautista said the DOSTPNRI refuses to disclose the companies that produce or sell adulterated or fake honey.

“If we just release the names of the companies, they may stop for a while. But no one can stop them from faking honey again in the future. If we incorporate these isotopebased standards into our regulatory system and the Philippine National Standards [PNS], then we think it will be the longlasting solution to this problem,” Bautista said.

The researchers called for “stricter policies, regulation, and control measures to protect the honey and vinegar industries and buyers,” he said.

“You may be buying honey for its wonderful health benefits, but because of adulteration, you may actually just be buying pure sugar syrup. Consuming too much pure sugar syrup can lead to harmful health effects,” he added.

The DOSTPNRI’s recommended revision in the standards was to include carbonstable isotope parameters in the “Essential Composition and Quality Factors” Section, Bautista told the Philippines Graphic.

Another is the addition of the stable isotope analysis in the “Methods of Sampling and Analysis” Section of the PNS on Honey.

The proposed revision passed the preassessment and prioritization criteria of DABAFS and is now included in the 2022 priority list of DABAFS, he noted.


DOSTPNRI researchers are also developing isotope analytical techniques for use in detecting synthetic byproducts in other condiments, such as ketchup, patis or fish sauce, and toyo or soy sauce, an earlier DOSTPNRI news release said.

“Ketchup is already cheap but it is still being faked,” Arcilla said.

Work on toyo and ketchup has already started, he told the Philippines Graphic.

Bautista said the next food products his team is targeting for authentication are carabao mangoes (e.g., Guimaras mango), coffee beans (e.g., Sagada coffee), cacao beans (e.g., Davao cacao), organic and halal food.


Arcilla said the recently approved DOSTPNRI isotope center’s stateoftheart equipment, such as the liquid scintillation counter and the isotope ratio mass spectrometer, will be used to study the isotope composition of the condiments, particularly carbon13 and nitrogen15.

He said the first labs were donated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which also provided the training, as part of its Atoms for Peace and Development mission.

The other labs were purchased by the DOSTPNRI.

The DOSTPNRI’s analytical laboratories and services are certified under ISO 17025:2005 and under ISO 9001:2015.

Bautista pointed out that DOSTPNRI’s longterm vision is to establish the “National Isotopes Center,” which can help authenticate different food types and even other materials (e.g., for weaving, drugs, etc.).

“The center will be very beneficial for Philippine products that have ‘worldclass’ potential because the capabilities offered by the center will ensure the traceability of our prized products, he said.

This means, he said, the mangoes being sold as “Guimaras mangoes,” indeed come from Guimaras, the same with Sagada coffee, Davao cacao, and many others.

Bautista told the Philippines Graphic that the DOSTPNRi is starting to collaborate with the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines “to establish the center as one of the certification laboratories for ‘Geographical Indication,’ a type of intellectual property that grants premium on a product based on where it was produced.”


Honey is known for its antimicrobial, antidiabetic and wound-healing properties. (Photo from Pixabay.com)

To make honey, the bees sip nectar from flowers using their strawlike tongue called proboscis. The enzymes in their gut will then process the nectar.

Afterwards, they pass it on to other bees in their colony. This process, called regurgitation, turns complex sugars of nectar into simple sugars.

Next, the bees store the regurgitated nectar in their hive and reduce its water content by flapping their wings. To complete the process, they cover the hive with beeswax.

These processes have fingerprints of carbon isotopes which are important for checking the authenticity of honey.


Lyn Resurreccion
Lyn Resurreccion
Lyn B. Resurreccion has been a journalist for more than three decades, more than two decades of which was as a science journalist. She has received several awards and recognitions, which include: the Face of Biotechnology Award in 2016; various Jose G. Burgos Jr. Awards for Biotech Journalism, including the Hall of Fame; DOST-SEI Recognition on its 30th Anniversary on Sept. 29, 2017; recognized in the "Science and She" campaign of ISAAA and Searca; Asean Champion of Biodiversity Award from the Asean Centre for Biodiversity for putting up and editing BusinessMirror's Biodiversity page; won for the BusinessMirror the Bantog Media Award for Institutional Category for editing its Science page; Best Journalist, Individual/Professional Category for Print Media from DOST Media Awards in July 2005; Third Prize in Science and Technology Award from the Philippine Press Institute-Philippine Geothermal Inc., March 2001; and Model Senate Employee in 1994.


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