Fluorescent approach aims to combat honey fraud

A new technology based on fluorescence is being developed to detect if honey has been blended with cheaper additions such as sugar syrup.

The brainchild of Aston University and The Scottish Bee Company – With help and support from the British Beekeepers Association and the Honey Authenticity Network UK – the approach appears to offer a solution to this, the second most prevalent form of food fraud worldwide (after milk-related fraud).

Earlier this year the EU study “From the Hives” reported that of 10 samples it had collected from honey exported from the UK, all were flagged as suspected of being adulterated. Although blended or packaged in Britain, the honey might have originated from overseas.

Researchers at the University’s Aston Institute for Photonic Technolgies (AIPT) and The Scottish Bee Company have been awarded an artificial intelligence feasibility study grant from Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation to develop honey authenticity testing technology.

Honey samples will be examined using a light-based technique called FLuorescence Excitation-Emission (FLE) spectroscopy combined with machine learning to create a fast and reliable testing method.

Current techniques, such as chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance and sensory analysis are expensive and time-consuming.

The University team is led by Dr Alex Rozhin, reader in nanotechnology within Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (AIPT). He said: “The project aims to enhance consumer confidence, elevate product value, and safeguard the reputation of British honey.

“The team will utilise advanced machine learning techniques, specifically parallel factor analysis (PARAFAC) and partial least squares discriminant analysis (PLS-DA), to analyse honey samples.

“These techniques offer the capability to identify the chemical constituents, assess their ratios, and determine quality markers within the samples.

“By combining the rapidity, precision, and optical capabilities of FLE spectroscopy with machine learning algorithms, the project aims to surpass existing state-of-the-art methods for assessing the quality of honey.”

Fluorescence (FL) spectroscopy used for rapid food quality assessment
The Scottish Bee Company will be sharing its expertise in honey production to inform the research. Iain Millar, director of The Scottish Bee Company said “Honey fraud isn’t just a consumer rights issue, it has far reaching implications for food security, land use and biodiversity.

“Aston University has a wealth of expertise in the area of food fraud, and we are glad to be working with their team and our colleagues at the BBKA to protect the integrity of the UK honey market.”

The also project involves Lynne Ingram, master beekeeper and founder of Honey Authenticity Network UK (HAN UK). She said: HAN UK has been campaigning for years to raise awareness of the issue of honey adulteration globally and in the UK.

“We are delighted to be working with Aston University, The Scottish Bee Company, and the British Beekeepers Association on the development of this exciting new test, that will go some way to overcoming the problem of honey fraud in the UK.”

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) will lend its expertise and help with collection of honey samples. Julie Coleman, master beekeeper and chair of the research, technical and environmental committee of the BBKA said: “Adulterated and fake honey is of great concern to our members and we are pleased for the opportunity to collaborate with all partners to collect and supply authentic honey for analysis.

“We hope that our samples can be used to prove the methodology and application of this exciting new technology.”

The research will take place at Aston University and will involve team members Dr Raghavan Chinnambedu-Murugesan, Dr Steve Daniels and Dr Valentina Barker.

Director of AIPT Professor Sergei Turitsyn said: “I am delighted for Alex and the team he leads.

“Research into the applications of photonics in food industry and agri-tech in AIPT started from the establishing of The Wolfson Centre for Photonics for Food and Agri-Tech funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

“This area was further supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation. We are extremely grateful to these charities for their support and we will continue to deliver for society, science and UK industry.”

The current project is expected to continue for six month and to translate into a UK-wide project that will create a comprehensive database of UK honey samples and develop portable instruments for honey sampling and detection.