It’s a question a lot of people wonder about—does honey go bad? And if honey does not spoil—why not?
Produced by bees, honey is a natural product with many uses. Archeologists suggest humans have been using bee products for 9,000 years, and the oldest samples of stored honey, discovered in an Egyptian tomb, date from about 3,000 years ago. But does honey go bad? What’s the secret to its longevity?
Mostly sugar, honey has a secret ingredient not shared by other raw products such as salt, sugar, or grains like rice. The ingredient is an enzyme produced in the gut of bees, a group of insects that represent our most important pollinators.
Here is how it works:
- Nectar is collected from flowers located in the flight path of honey bees. By one calculation, it takes about two million flowers and about 50,000 miles traveled to produce one pound of honey. In its entire lifetime, a single honeybee creates one to one and half teaspoons of honey. Food for thought as you stir honey into your tea, or make your next peanut butter and honey sandwich.
- Upon return, bees regurgitate the nectar they have gathered along with glucose oxidase, a stomach enzyme produced by bees. The water that naturally occurs in nectar is fanned out by the bees, leaving the chemical compounds created when the enzyme and nectar mix. Two of those compounds are hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid.
- The pH of honey is low—making it an unfriendly, acidic environment for organisms and bacteria. The small amounts of hydrogen peroxide make honey a natural medicinal, used for years for wound care. Honey naturally draws water from its surrounding environment. For weepy wounds, honey kept infection and invading bacteria out. The acidic environment, viscous texture, and beneficial amounts of hydrogen peroxide make honey a resilient and useful natural product.
- Honey is sold unfiltered and raw, or filtered and raw. There are claims that unfiltered honey is more nutritious than filtered honey, but research does not solidly support the claim. Filtering is the process of removing pollen, stray particles, and air bubbles from honey to produce the transparent amber liquid that makes honey so beautiful.
- A big part of the reason for heating and filtering honey is to keep it liquid longer. All honey crystallizes, but it crystallizes more rapidly when exposed to air or when particles like pollen are suspended in the honey. Remove crystals from honey by placing it in a hot pan of water and cooling until crystals dissolve. Your honey will be as good as new!
- Molasses is also a sweetener, but lacks the involvement of bees. Without the bees’ labor and enzymes, molasses spoils more quickly than honey.
Uses and cautions—when honey does go bad
Honey is used as a sweetener, for baking, and as a component in many products — including skin care products and natural energy foods. For more than 4,000 years of recorded history, honey has also been used for medicinal purposes such as soothing sore throats and coughs.
Here are some interesting—and important—points to remember about honey:
- Pollen is not a big component in honey, but is sometimes analyzed to understand the source of the nectar for a particular bee colony. When nectar is collected by bees from certain plants, honey can act as an allergen to some people, causing uncomfortable, and sometimes serious symptoms in those with bee-associated allergies or sensitive to certain plants.
- The bacterium Clostridium botulinum, referred to as botulism, can survive in the form of spores in honey. Infants under one year are especially vulnerable to infection by C. botulinum in substances like honey or corn syrup. Whether filtered or raw, honey is generally not considered safe for infants under 12 months.
Honey and humans—a pollinator partnership
Bees, and pollinators in general, need our help. Pollinators are essential to human and environmental health. In June of this year, the White House invited individuals and organizations to take part in saving the pollinators that make our honey—and our food.
The next time you use honey to bake or sweeten your day, give thought to its many beneficial uses and remember the bees and the important environmental partnership that make the world’s honey possible.