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 by the time they are about six months 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?

Rusty

HoneyBeeSuite.com

Why ruin it? Photo by IndigoVallley.
Why ruin it? Photo by IndigoVallley.

Comments

Guy
Reply

Hi Rusty
I like your perspective!
Do you think that besides straining, the only additional procedure (that might be) required in the processing of honey is the reduction of moisture? Johannsmeier (2001) states that honey with less than 17% moisture content is safe (will not ferment) regardless the yeast content. My idea is to find a honey moisture evaporator (that works at ambient temperature) to reduce the moisture content to 17% and like you suggest add warnings for consumers not to feed honey to infants and individuals with compromised immune systems.
Guy

Rusty
Reply

Guy,

If the honey has been capped, it is safe to assume it is dry enough not to ferment. But it you are adding uncapped honey to capped honey, then you would want to test for moisture and dry it down, if necessary.

hat cherylann
Reply

Good article on bacteria, but pasteurizing is done to kill yeast, just thought you should know so you can update your article.

Rusty
Reply

Pasteurization can be used to kill mold and fungus, but pasteurization of food products can also kill the organisms that cause tuberculosis, brucellosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and Q-fever; it also kills other harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria, Yersinia, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli. Any intro level book on microbiology will help you with this concept.

Guy
Reply

Hi Rusty

We harvested 1 ton of honey in the Lowveld of South Africa and ensured that it was 99% capped. The average temperature was 38 degrees celsius and the average humidity 127%. The honey moisture content was 18.5% so I presume the honey (being hygroscopic) absorbed moisture from the air. How do you suggest reducing the moisture content?

Rusty
Reply

Guy,

Moisture at 18.5% is nearly ideal. I would just leave it. Check locally, but in the UK, for example, honey can be sold with moisture up to 20%.

Rose B
Reply

FYI: Milk is pasteurized at 145 degrees for 30 minutes, or 161 degrees for 15 seconds. Cream on the other hand must be heated 5 degrees higher in both these time frames, 150 degrees for 30 minutes and 166 degrees (or 170) for 15 seconds. It is because of the thickness of the extra fat molecules in the cream, which makes sense that the thicker honey would require the same increase in temp. Good article !

karel belanda
Reply

Pasteurized “honey” should not be called honey. It is a shame that this product can be sold in grocery stores, with the label honey, as in fact it isn’t honey anymore. The taste and all health benefits of REAL honey are wasted in the pasteurization process. Instead you should buy honey from your local (preferably) biological beekeeper, who doesn’t use chemicals and practices beekeeping in a natural and bee-friendly way, and harvests honey without heating (= wasting) it.

Sealed honeycombs guarantee the moisture percentage is below 20%; industrial honey is often harvested too early and therefore needs to be heated.

Spazmodo
Reply

Uhh…no they aren’t.

Lana
Reply

Rusty and Guy, you are both right. Honey is a natural anti-bacterial and it’s a very harsh environment for bacteria to even try to thrive in. You do have to worry about yeast. They pasteurize honey to eliminate the risk of fermentation. It also doesn’t crystallize as fast, making a more appealing consumer product. Certain types of yeast can pose health risks to people with compromised immune systems like you mentioned. For example Aspergillus is yeast that can cause some nasty disease in humans and animals (think lungs if you open honey with it and breath it in). I for one would not want to eat honey with Aspergillus. Aspergillus produces alfatoxins which when the body metabolizes passes through the liver. It can cause liver cirrhosis and acute hepatic failure.

Nick
Reply

Rusty,

You probably have a better set of data for this, please do feel free to help me get the numbers right. Specifically the state’s definition of ‘heated’ has a temperature associated with it… somewhere? :)

Check your state, province or other regulatory agencies for details for your own area. I would expect that most will have something similar to what Washington State has on the books.

Washington State has exempted beekeeper extracted honey from the requirements of a Food Processing License as long as it is ‘raw:’ “Beekeepers who extract their own honey can sell it in the raw form to the end consumer…” (See the first link below)

If the honey is heated, spun, etc. the license is required. I have seen somewhere, the definition of ‘heated’ in this context. I cannot, however, find the official text to back it up. I *believe* that the temperature was 120 degrees (F) but, as stated I, can neither confirm nor deny this part is indeed a FACT.

This could be a consideration for any plans for pasteurizing, heating to reduce moisture content and so forth.
I don’t know of anything that would prevent a seller to offer a handout with recipes and either a ‘How-To’ or a link to where information on ‘Pasteurizing at Home’ might be found.

http://agr.wa.gov/marketing/smallfarm/DOCS/3-SellingHoney.pdf
http://agr.wa.gov/marketing/smallfarm/DOCS/10-FoodProcessing.pdf

Happy New Year all. :)

Nick
Kent WA

DariusNZ
Reply

Excellent article! I love honey very much. I would say I am married with honey from my early childhood time. Fortunately in New Zealand the honey is most time in its natural form – raw. I was thinking about the moisture content in honey you guys were discussing above. I know one good method I am using in my job ( I am industrial electrician). It is a “dry air”. In industry I am working for we extract the moisture from the oils by applying vacuum and then filling up the empty space with the dry air. The oil could be mechanically processed to expose all moisture to the dry air to speed up the process (or flashing with the dry air). This process does not strictly require the vacuuming but I am pretty sure that i could be an idea for removing access of moisture from honey. It is not too expensive to equip itself with a dry air compressor .

Rusty
Reply

Darius,

Interesting. I have never heard of a dry air compressor.

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