Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

Will consumers opt for honey after the purity scandal?

Honey is popular as an immunity booster, especially in winters, but can the purity scandal affect how consumers view the product? Will it still find takers?

2020 has been the year of sanitisers and immunity boosters. To fight the spread of the Coronavirus, Indians invested in taking multivitamins, exercising and following Ayurvedic practices to boost immunity – such as drinking lemon and honey tea.

However, honey has recently come under the scanner. Major honey brands such as Dabur, Patanjali and Emami (Zandu Pure Honey) came under the scanner for having failed a purity test conducted by a German laboratory, said the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation, earlier this month (December).

Out of the 13 honey brands that were tested, Marico’s Saffola Honey was the only big brand to pass all the tests. Sanjay Mishra, chief operating officer, India sales, and CEO, new business, Marico, said in an e-mailed statement that every batch of Saffola Honey is tested using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) technology. It is one of the most advanced tests in the world, in the best in class laboratories, to ensure that it is 100 per cent pure, free from added sugar and any form of adulteration.

“Saffola Honey is also compliant with each of the quality parameters mandated by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). Since its launch in June this year, it has been widely accepted by consumers and appreciated by the trade for delivering on its promise of quality and purity. We will continue to communicate these attributes of Saffola Honey to our discerning consumers through our TVCs, digital media, advertisements on e-commerce platforms and our own DTC channel,” said Mishra.

Also Read: Saffola extols its honey's purity in new ad

The NMR test is administered across the world to test honey for its purity. While the test is not a norm in India, it is mandatory for honey meant for export.

During its investigation, the CSE tracked down Chinese trade portals, like Alibaba, which were advertising fructose syrup that can bypass tests. Amit Khurana, programme director of CSE’s food safety and toxins team, remarked, “It remains unclear how much does the food regulator really knows about this murky business.”

In August, Saffola Honey had released its first ad, where it touted its purity and mentioned that it was tested using NMR, and was “free from any form of adulteration and with no added sugar.” It was also the first ad we (afaqs!) saw where a scientist in a lab coat examines honey's purity under a microscope.

Later in October, Dabur Honey had released an ad, where a man dissuades a lady from buying what appears to be a bottle of Dabur Honey but is, in fact, a lookalike. Dabur also spoke about the NMR test in this ad.

But what does this controversy mean for honey consumption in India? Will consumers opt for other immunity building alternatives? We spoke to three experts to find out.

Edited excerpts:

Sachin Kumar, founder and managing director, Bottle Openers

Honey’s sales can’t get affected immediately with a blip of controversy. But if the controversy continues for few months, then it might affect sales of some brands temporarily, depending on the consumer sentiments. Overnight, consumers will not change the brand, or stop using it.

This can’t be compared to the pesticide in soft drinks controversy as it is easier to target soft drinks. They are not considered healthy anyway. The honey sector may not be affected as much because of the health benefits. I believe this controversy may give a boost to new emerging food start-ups, like Country Delight, Milkbasket, etc., which emphasise on health and hygiene more, to enter in this segment.

Sachin Kumar
Sachin Kumar

Consumers may not skip using honey as an immunity booster. Honey is not just one product, but a huge category in itself, with deep Indian roots. It will only grow after this controversy. Just like after the Maggi controversy, new entrants arrived in the category and the whole category grew. The challenge for marketers, going forward, will be to inform and educate consumers about ‘How to test purity of honey’.

Toru Jhaveri, VP and head of strategy, West, DDB Mudra

I remember years ago, there was a similar expose done about the ingredients in organic honey. This is when organic ingredients were just kind of, you know, breaking through in our larger consciousness.

There was a lot of investigation around what actually goes into organic honey, and many of them were found to be adulterated and not actually organic at all. Which then led to a lot of conversation around food certification processes.

Toru Jhaveri
Toru Jhaveri

That was the time when people decided against using organic honey, instead, opting for brands like Dabur. This is interesting to me, because I don't think it won’t affect of the credibility of honey, as much as this will shift people's behaviour around the kind of honey that they source.

Honey is something that’s very commonly consumed in Indian as well as western cultures. Now, I think there will be a push in the other direction. But it's going to be difficult to convince people, as a mass manufacturer of honey, that this is the real deal. Now, organic is more affordable, and people are more informed. So, I think it's not so much about the credibility of the ingredients now, as much as it is about credibility of the source.

The main difference between this scandal and the one linking to Coca-Cola and Pepsi is that nobody goes to a cola expecting a healthy ingredient. With honey, people expect goodness. However, I don’t think this scandal will affect consumption levels. Indian consumers may not remember this in a few months...

Titus Upputuru, national creative director, Dentsu One, and creative head, Taproot Dentsu Gurgaon

Honey is a good immunity booster. In fact, I am a consumer of it myself. The other day as I was buying groceries, I saw different brands of honey bottles on the counter, but I recollected the recent controversy and refrained from buying any. So, it may, indeed, impact sales.

Titus Upputuru
Titus Upputuru

Everyone is well informed these days, thanks to Internet research that we are all doing, especially the homemakers. People are not depending on just one or two immunity boosters. Now more than ever, there is a holistic approach towards health that includes exercise and physical fitness.

I think that the sector will need to drive a lot of genuine good PR initiatives to build faith again. Also, marketing needs to create intrinsic, ingredient-led, product origin-related advertising, which may help build trust again.