Published on 23 May, 2021


Published on 23 May, 2021


Understanding Mānuka honey testing and authenticity; a conversation with Dr. Terry Braggins

Dr Terry Braggins has been involved with testing both honey and dairy products with New Zealand for years – a crucial process in preserving the authenticity and quality of the Mānuka honey industry.

The Mānuka honey industry is rife with adulteration. In order to tackle this, MPI and the UMFHA uphold strict regulations for testing. This ensures that you have peace of mind when purchasing Mānuka honey.

I spoke with Terry for an insight into how the process works, and where the testing industry is heading next.

B: Terry – explain your role at Analytica Laboratories.

T: I was one of the three founders of Analytica Laboratories in 2011. My role at Analytica was General Manager for the Foods Division. This covered mainly honey and dairy testing. Analytica was sold to an ASX listed company, HRL Holdings, in 2017. The company now has over 130 staff. I am still involved in Analytica on a casual part-time basis.

B: How does Analytica differentiate from other testing facilities in New Zealand?

T: We started the business with the philosophy of taking on the difficult and challenging projects and applying innovation to make laboratory tests faster and at the same time lower cost to customers. One of many examples is the 3in1 Mānuka honey test. Before we came to the market, the determination of three components – DHA, MGO, and HMF – were done by three individual tests. The turnaround time was 5 to 10 days in the height of the season, and the combined cost of the three tests was about $300 per sample. After applying some innovation, we were able to combine all three analytes into one test. This has resulted in the cost of the test reducing 10-fold and the turnaround time is now consistently 1 to 2 days. We also offer an urgent turnaround same-day test.

B: Analytica has become a ‘go-to’ for commercial testing within New Zealand – and particularly within the Mānuka honey industry. Please explain the testing process.

T: We consider ourselves as leaders of applying innovation, rather than followers, and I think this has contributed to attracting customers to our service. We want to provide the best possible testing service.

Innovation is not just limited to some technical component of the test, but also covers the whole supply chain.

We constantly provide useful information to the wider honey industry and our customers. One example is regularly providing technical articles in the NZ Beekeeper Magazine. These articles are also available on our website. The information in these articles often comes from our in-house research and development projects. This is another point of difference compared to our competitors. We also do contract research for organizations which has flow on effects of innovation process in routine testing.

To improve the turnaround times and reduce testing costs, we have applied innovations from before the sample arrives at Analytica, throughout the testing process, and to reporting the results to our customers. The greatest impact of innovation is incorporating it along the whole testing chain. We are constantly reviewing and fine tuning the process.

At Analytica, customer can preregister their samples on-line and using pre-printed barcodes. When the samples arrive at the laboratory, receipting is automatic and less prone to data transcription errors. An acknowledgment of sample arrive is automatically set to the customer. Each sample receives a unique identification code, and this is used throughout the testing process right through to reporting, to keep track of the sample identity and test results. This Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is fully computerised and data-secure. The LIMS can monitor testing performance and at any time we can get a report of what stage a particular test is at. Test results can be reported pdf format, in excel spreadsheet format, accessed online by the customer, or sent electronically from Analytica’s database to a customer’s database.

Our testing system and methods comply with the ISO 17025 quality standard and we are audited regularly by International Accreditation New Zealand.

B: As the Mānuka honey industry continues to grow and be held to rigorous international standards (and rightly so), how do you see the field of commercial testing for Mānuka honey changing?

T: Being a member of the International Honey Commission and Apimondia honey adulteration committees, and the ISO Bee Products Standard working group, gives me valuable insight into the latest issues that challenge the international honey industry and how these international groups are grappling with these issues.

The most serious issue facing the international honey industry is honey adulteration. It is well known that while the quantity of honey being sold around the world is increasing, there is not a concomitant increase in the number of hives. There is strong evidence that producers in some countries are fortifying honey with cheap sugar syrups. This has driven the price of honey so low that in some countries beekeeping for honey production is financially unviable.

Up until recently adulteration of honey with sugar syrup could easily be detected by the C4 sugar test because sugars in honey are naturally C3-type sugars. Cane sugar, originally the main syrup use for adulteration, is a C4 sugar. However, more recently, those who adulterate honey with sugar syrup are increasingly using C3 sugar syrups such as rice sugar syrup. These C3 syrups are more difficult to detect in honey that also contains C3 sugars.  

Unfortunately, rice sugar syrups can easily be purchased on line where manufactures advertise their products can pass C4 and C3 sugar tests. Here is an example:

Another unscrupulous practice is that some producers in some countries are removing frames from hives before the bees have had a chance to naturally reduce the moisture content of the honey and cap the cell with wax. The result is a harvest immature product with moisture content as high as 40%. This immature product is then moisture-reduced by a mechanical process. This process allows the production far greater volumes from a hive compared to the natural maturation process. This product is then sold at a low price on the market – forcing down the price of naturally-produced honey.

These challenges require the development of ever-increasingly sophisticated testing methods to expose honey adulteration. Unfortunately testing cost will increase. One technology recently being applied to honey adulteration testing is NMR. There is still more validation of this technology required, but more and more countries are investigating and applying NMR as a new tool to fight against honey adulteration. Another technique being used is High Resolution Mass Spectroscopy. These are expensive instruments and the tests are expensive.

B: What hurdles do you envision for the future of the Mānuka honey industry?

T: Mānuka honey is unique because of its non-peroxide anti-bacterial properties and this has made it one of the most valued honeys in the world.

However, there is also another uniqueness of mānuka honey. It is probably the only honey where its value increases on storage. All other honeys around the world are sold soon after production so cash flow is returned to the beekeeper as soon as possible and to reduce inventory before the start of the next season. The active component of mānuka honey is methylglyoxal (MGO) which increases in concentration on storage as it is produced from the conversion of its pre-cursor, dihydroxyacetone (DHA). Some mānuka can be stored for 1 to 2 years before entering the retail market.

During this storage time, there are other significant chemical changes that occur. For example, HMF can increase, the enzyme Diastase can decrease, apparent (false) C4 sugar levels increase, and Mānuka pollen DNA (used in the MPI definition) can decrease.

HMF, diastase and C4 sugar levels a quality measures used by our export markets to determine if the honey has been adulterated or temperature abused during processing. Some of our high-quality mānuka honey is being rejected in our export markets because these quality indicators are failing in market testing. These quality measures were designed for traditional fresh honeys commonly produced in Europe where many of the quality indicators were developed.

The challenge for the NZ mānuka honey industry is to produce sound scientific evidence to convince overseas regulators that our Mānuka honey is acceptable even if it may fail the traditional quality indicators. Analytica is currently undertaking some of this research.

Another challenge for the NZ mānuka honey industry is the advent of ‘me-too’ products. Mānuka honey is produced from the nectar of Letospermum scoparium plants. This is the main species in New Zealand. However, Australia has more than 80 Leptospermum species. Some, but not all, have DHA and MGO content with similar anti-bacterial activity. It is only recently that some Australian honey producers have come up with the term Australian Mānuka Honey. Previously, the Australians have called this honey Jellybush. New Zealand has applied for Certification Trade Marks in our main export markets to protect the term Mānuka Honey. This has been challenged by Australia in some markets and threatens New Zealand’s position. Mānuka is a Māori word and mānuka honey is unique to New Zealand.

B: What should the consumer look out for to ensure Mānuka honey is authentic? 

T: Honey from a reputable supplier that has a reasonable level of MGO and an acceptable level of HMF, and meets the MPI Mānuka honey definition.

B: Research and development are key to Analytica’s innovative approach. What should we keep an eye out for in the future?

T: We don’t want to give too much away at this stage, but we will always continue to innovate that will result in benefits to the industry.

Thank you, Terry.

By Beka @ Ka Noa.