Pasteurizing honey . . . whatever for?
In a recent post I discussed why grocery store honey often tastes bland. I mentioned floral sources, mixing, and filtering. But one important issue I forgot is pasteurization. Unless it’s specifically marked “raw,” much of the honey on grocery store shelves is actually pasteurized.
Pasteurization is a process that destroys microorganisms with heat. Different combinations of temperature and time can be used to pasteurize, depending on the substance. Most sources I found recommended heating the honey to 145° F (63° C) for 30 minutes. Some preferred 150° (65.5° C) for 30 minutes. One suggested that the temperature be brought to 170° F (77° C) momentarily.
Most of the sources I read claimed that honey is pasteurized to “kill bacteria and reduce crystallization.” Now we all know that honey is famed for its antibacterial properties, that it is still used in some areas to dress wounds, and that it can keep for years on end. So why, exactly, do we need to kill bacteria?
According to my sources, very young children or those with compromised immune systems should consume only pasteurized honey because there are a small number of cases each year where spores of Clostridium botulinum found in honey have been responsible for botulism poisoning. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 110 cases of botulism poisoning occur each year in the United States, mostly from improperly canned food, corn syrup, and honey. About 90% of these cases occur in children under six months old.
Although the spores of Clostridium botulinum cannot grow or make toxin in the acidic environment of honey, they survive in a resting state. If they are eaten by an infant, the spores can grow, reproduce, and make toxins while living in the baby’s intestinal tract. The toxins are then absorbed into the child’s body and can cause illness. Fortunately, children lose the ability to grow the bacteria in their gut somewhere between 6 months and one year old. But here’s the catch. If this scenario is accurate, then the pasteurization of honey will do nothing to prevent infant botulism.
Both the actual Clostridium botulinum bacteria and the toxins it produces are easily destroyed by boiling for several minutes or by holding them at lower temperatures for longer times. The spores, on the other hand, are extremely resistant. Pressure cooking at 250° F (121° C) for three minutes will kill the spores, as will other combinations of temperature, pressure, time, and acidity. At standard pressures, it could take hours of boiling to kill them.
But as I showed you above, the common honey pasteurization process is much less rigorous and could not possibly kill the spores responsible for infant botulism. However, any of these levels of heat will destroy the nuanced flavors of honey as well as many of the phytochemicals, antioxidants, and nutrients. In other words we are destroying the product for no reason.
Most honey already carries a label warning the consumer not to feed it to infants. Couldn’t we extend that warning to include individuals with compromised immune systems and leave it at that? It’s no wonder that honey is not more popular. We removed the enchantment. After cooking away the flavor, we are left with nothing but sticky sweetness. What is the point of ruining a magical product for so little—or no—benefit?