March 22 Good Science News #10 Sweet
March 20 was the spring equinox, the official beginning of spring. With the return of spring comes a resurgence of life, as birds that were waiting out the winter in the tropics return north and insects reemerge from their winter slumber. One of the most noteworthy insects returning to action in the northern hemisphere is the honeybee.
Honey and sugar cane are the two oldest cultivated form of sweeteners. The act of beekeeping began in North Africa over 8,000 years ago, while sugar cane cultivation began around the same time in New Guinea. While beekeeping has been in Europe for millennia, sugar cane took some time to reach Europe, not arriving until the 1100’s. Despite the fact that the origins of beekeeping and the cultivation of sugarcane are, for the most part, buried in antiquity, the combined production of honey and sugar cane has rarely, if ever, kept up with our virtually insatiable demand. Honey is a complicated mixture of four different sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose and sucrose) as well as a number of other proteins and vitamins. Extracted syrup from sugar cane, in contrast, is made up almost exclusively of a two-sugar disaccharide, composed of one part glucose and one part fructose. This two-sugar disaccharide is also what we know as table sugar. Simple forms of sugar can now be derived using easier methods. Glucose for example, can be derived by breaking the bonds that make up starch, as each unit within a starchy matrix is nothing more than a simple glucose molecule. The starches in fruits, corn and other grains can be used to produce glucose syrup in massive amounts. Consequently, the amount of honey on the international market is dwarfed by the massive amounts of glucose and fructose syrups. Glucose (and its chemical relative fructose) are inexpensive to make, and can be mixed with honey to create a cheaper alternative to the pure bee-produced sweetener. And therein lies the problem. A recent article featured in Nature Briefing, a weekly science-oriented email distributed by Nature magazine, detailed how China, a major producer of honey world-wide, is flooding the world market with glucose laden honey. The results are disastrous for countries such as honey as Mexico, whose 42 thousand beekeepers are being financially pressed by the competition against the cheaper, adulterated product. The tragedy is that none of this is new, as the adulteration of honey with glucose has been going on for well more than 120 years. It is just too easy to tempting to create the inexpensive product then try to pawn it off as the more expensive one. So where is the good news in all of this? For that, you will have to tune in again next week.