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In a previous post, I discussed why grocery store honey often tastes bland and boring. I mentioned floral sources, mixing, and filtering. But one important issue I didn’t mention is pasteurization. Unless it’s specifically marked “raw,” much of the honey on grocery store shelves is pasteurized at some level.
Most of my sources claim that honey is pasteurized to “kill bacteria and yeast, or to reduce crystallization.” Now we all know that honey is famed for its antibacterial properties, that it is still used to dress wounds, and that it can keep for years on end. So why, exactly, do we need to worry about bacteria?
What is pasteurization?
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 references I found recommended heating 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.
It is widely stated that very young children or those with compromised immune systems should consume only pasteurized honey. The reason? There are a small number of cases each year where spores of Clostridium botulinum found in honey have germinated and caused 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.
Why does botulism in honey affect only children?
Although the spores of Clostridium botulinum cannot grow, reproduce, or make toxin in the acidic environment of honey, they survive in a resting state. But if the spores are eaten by an infant, the spores can grow, reproduce, and make toxins while living in the baby’s intestinal tract.
This occurs because a baby’s digestive system is not mature enough to resist the bacteria. Instead, the bacteria develop until they can release the toxins. 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. Adults with compromised immune systems may never be able to neutralize the bacteria.
Botulism spores are resistant to standard methods of honey pasteurization
So here’s the catch: pasteurization of honey as it’s normally practiced will do nothing to prevent botulism in infants or in immunocompromised adults.
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. But at standard pressures, it could take hours of boiling to kill them.
As I showed you above, the common honey pasteurization process is much less rigorous and could not possibly kill the spores. 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 best qualities of honey but receiving no benefit.
To be totally safe, young children and those with compromised immune systems should not eat honey. Period. Unless you know specifically the time and temperatures used for the pasteurization process, I wouldn’t chance it.
If it doesn’t kill spores, why do we pasteurize honey at all?
Good question. Honey is pasteurized to make life easier for the people bottling and marketing honey. They may be individual beekeepers, but most likely they are large distributors who buy honey, process, bottle, and redistribute it.
In truth, honey is less likely to crystallize once it is pasteurized, and liquid honey is easier to sell. So it makes sense from a storage, distribution, and marketing perspective to keep it liquid as long as possible.
Pasteurization does little or nothing to help the consumer. After all, the added heat destroys many aspects of taste and nutrition, while it fails to kill botulism spores in most cases.
Unfortunately, people call unpasteurized honey “raw.” This makes it sound like it’s “uncooked” or perhaps “unready” for consumption. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We need more education, not more processing
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 remove 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?
Honey Bee Suite