Can Honey Go Bad or Make You Sick?
Barefootangel asks: “I read your report on honey and have a question. Yesterday (June 21, 2012) I went to a farmer’s market and while there I tried a teaspoon of raw honey. It left an awful taste and certainly did not taste like good honey. I helped my grandfather with his hives and know how honey should taste. After leaving the market I went to the drugstore to pick up some meds and while in the store, I got very dizzy, confused and sick. This was about 25 to 30 minutes after tasting the honey. I felt like the life had been let out of me. My daughter in law got me home and it was not until hours later that I remembered about the honey.
Could the honey have been bad or make me sick?”
It is very unlikely the honey was bad. Properly stored, honey can last many years without even any degradation of flavor, let alone spoiling. In the extreme, honey can last centuries, though the flavor and color will be affected the longer it is stored. That being said, it is possible for honey to go “bad” if improperly stored, though that depends somewhat on what you mean by “bad”.
Honey is hygroscopic, meaning that it will absorb water from things, even from the air. As mentioned in the previous article on this site that you referenced (Honey can be Used for a Variety of Medicinal Purposes), this has the effect of providing almost no free water for microbes and molds to use. Honey also has a low pH value, making an environment that is usually too acidic for most microbes. Honey also naturally produces hydrogen peroxide when it absorbs moisture, which further makes it hard for bacteria to take hold and “spoil” the honey, even if it’s improperly stored. However, if the water content of the honey gets high enough, certain types of yeast can survive and ferment the honey somewhat, creating alcohol and in that sense “spoiling” the honey. Although, with the correct type of yeast, lovers of mead might argue with the “spoiling” part. With the wrong type of yeast, it will become unpalatable and thus “go bad”.
It is extremely unlikely that anything of the sort was going on with the honey you tasted. It was no doubt fairly new/fresh, packaged, and stored properly. However, although it’s rare, even unspoiled, fresh honey can make you sick, particularly with raw honey where pollen and other particles are not filtered out.
So how can honey make you sick? It’s possible that the honey may have been made from nectar containing something you are allergic to or that the honey was made from nectar that contains something toxic to humans, such as nectar from rhododendrons or other plants from the family Ericaceae (including blueberries, huckleberries, cranberries, and azaleas, among others).
Honey made from nectar of things like rhododendrons can cause a variety of problems which will usually show up within a few minutes to a few hours of eating it, depending on the dosage. In this case, the symptoms are caused by a toxin known as grayanotoxin. These symptoms include sweating, nausea/vomiting, dizziness, weakness, paresthesia (numbness/prickling sensation) in your arms, legs, and around your mouth, low blood pressure, and excessive salivation. In extreme cases, when the dose gets high enough, you can experience loss of coordination, severe muscle weakness, lower or erratic heart rhythms, and even first, second, and third degree heart blocks. Despite how bad this all sounds, even in relatively high doses, this will rarely be fatal and symptoms and the effects of the grayanotoxin tend to dissipate within 24 hours.
All that being said, given the very small amount of the honey it sounds like you consumed, the grayanotoxin content would have had to be very high to affect you so severely, so you getting sick may have had nothing to do with the honey, or it could have just contained something you were highly allergic to unrelated to grayanotoxin. Particularly with raw honey that contains various particles and pollen, this is very possible.
As for the flavor, what nectar(s) honey is made from and weather conditions when it was made can also pretty drastically affect the flavor and color of the honey. As a general rule, the darker honey is, the stronger it will taste; the lighter it is, the milder it will taste. It should also be noted that doing things like overheating honey can cause it to turn darker and negatively affect the flavor. As it ages, particularly when not stored properly, it will also tend to darken and, of course, crystallize.
On another somewhat related note, honey that won’t make you sick can make babies sick, possibly fatally so. This is because the honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores. These won’t usually effect people over 12 months old or so as microbes in most people’s intestinal tracts will inhibit the Clostridium botulinum spores from multiplying, but can germinate inside a baby’s less cultured digestive system and cause infant botulism. Specifically, these spores will produce botulinum toxin in the baby’s large intestine. This toxin will cause nerve problems, such as blocking their nerve endings’ ability to signal a muscle to contract.
It’s OK for a breastfeeding mother to eat honey though as Clostridium botulinum cannot be transmitted via breast milk to the baby. However, babies like to put everything in their mouths, so if you eat a lot of honey, best to make sure nothing with honey on it gets near the baby.
If you liked this post and the Bonus Honey Facts below, you might also like:
Bonus Honey Facts:
- When honey crystallizes, all you have to do to return it to its former state is place it in a glass jar (if it’s not already in one), then put the jar in a container of water, which you’ll then heat. If it’s raw honey and you want to retain most of the nutritional and medicinal benefits, make sure you don’t heat it to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In either case, never boil honey. This will negatively affect the flavor.
- You can also microwave crystallized honey. In this case, to make sure you don’t overheat it, microwave it in 20-30 second increments, stirring and waiting about a minute in between sessions.
- Similar to how refrigerating bread will make it go stale faster, putting honey in a refrigerator will make it crystallize faster.
- There are over 300 unique types of honey produced in the United States alone. Given that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to keep track of what plants one’s bees are getting nectar from, you’ll usually just see honey classified based on color, rather than from nectar from a distinct variety of plant.
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