Is honey never going bad? What you should know

Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners consumed by humans, with a registered use since 5,500 BC. It is also rumored to have special and long-lasting properties.

Many people have heard about the jars of honey that were unearthed in the ancient Egyptian tombs, which are as good to eat as the day they were sealed.

These stories have led many people to believe that honey simply does not go wrong, ever.

But is that really true?

This article investigates why honey can last so long and what can cause it to be damaged.

What is honey?

Is honey going bad?

Honey is a sweet and natural substance produced by bees from the nectar or secretions of plants (1, 2).

The bees suck the nectar from the flowers, mix it with saliva and enzymes and store it in a bag of honey. Then they leave it in the hive so that it ripens and is used as food (2).

Because the composition of honey depends on the species of bees, as well as the plants and flowers they use, it can vary significantly in taste and color, from light and colorless amber to dark amber (1).

Honey consists of approximately 80% sugar and no more than 18% water. The exact amount is determined by the species of bee, plants, climate and humidity, as well as processing (1).

It also contains organic acids such as gluconic acid, which is responsible for its characteristic acidic flavor. In addition, the pollen found in unfiltered honey contains very small amounts of proteins, enzymes, amino acids and vitamins (1).

Nutritionally, the only significant nutrient in honey is sugar, with 17.2 grams and 65 calories per tablespoon (21 grams) (3).

There are also traces of minerals, such as potassium, especially in the darker varieties, although the amounts are too small to be nutritionally relevant (1).

Summary Honey is a food produced by bees from the nectar of plants. It has a high sugar content and contains traces of other substances, such as organic acids, potassium, proteins, enzymes and vitamins.

Why can honey last a long time?

Honey has some special properties that help it last a long time, including a high sugar content and low moisture content, an acidic nature and antimicrobial enzymes produced by bees.

It is very high in sugar and low in moisture

Honey is composed of approximately 80% sugar, which can inhibit the growth of many types of microbes, such as bacteria and fungi (4).

A high sugar content means that the osmotic pressure in honey is very high. This causes water to flow out of the cells of the microbes, stopping their growth and reproduction (4, 5).

In addition, although it contains around 17 to 18% water, the water activity in honey is very low (4).

This means that the sugars interact with the water molecules, so they can not be used by microorganisms and fermentation or the decomposition of honey can not occur (4, 5).

Also, because honey is quite dense, oxygen can not easily dissolve in it. This, again, prevents many types of microbes from growing or reproducing (4).

It is acid

The pH of the honey varies from 3.4 to 6.1, with an average pH of 3.9, which is quite acidic. The main reason for this is the presence of gluconic acid, which occurs during the maturation of the nectar (4, 5).

Originally, it was thought that the acidic environment of honey was responsible for preventing microbial growth. However, studies comparing varieties with lower and higher pH values ​​did not find a significant difference in antimicrobial activity (5).

However, for certain bacteria such as C. diphtheriae, E.coli, Streptococcus Y Salmonella, an acidic environment is certainly hostile and hinders its growth (5).

In fact, honey is so effective in killing certain types of bacteria that it is even used in burns and ulcers to prevent and treat infections (6, 7).

Bees have special enzymes that suppress bacterial growth

During honey production, bees secrete an enzyme called glucose oxidase into the nectar to help preserve honey (1, 5).

As the honey matures, glucose oxidase converts sugar into gluconic acid and also produces a compound called hydrogen peroxide (5).

It is believed that this hydrogen peroxide contributes to the antibacterial properties of honey and helps prevent the growth of microorganisms (1, 4, 5).

In addition, it has been found that honey contains a variety of other compounds such as polyphenols, flavonoids, methylglyoxal, bee peptides and other antibacterial agents, which can also add to their antimicrobial qualities (2).

Summary Honey has a high sugar content and low moisture content. It is acidic and contains the antibacterial substance hydrogen peroxide. These three characteristics are what allow properly stored honey to be maintained for so long.

When can honey become bad?

Despite the antimicrobial properties of honey, it can leave or cause illness in certain circumstances. These include contamination, adulteration, incorrect storage and degradation over time.

It may be contaminated

The microbes naturally present in honey include bacteria, yeasts and molds. These can come from pollen, the digestive tract of bees, dust, air, earth and flowers (4).

Due to the antimicrobial properties of honey, these organisms are usually only found in very small amounts and can not multiply, which means that they should not be a health problem (4).

However, the spores of the neurotoxin. C. botulinum They are found in 5 to 15% of honey samples in very small amounts (4).

This is generally harmless for adults, but babies under one year old can, in rare cases, develop childhood botulism that can cause nervous system damage, paralysis and respiratory failure. Therefore, honey is not suitable for this young age group (4, 8, 9).

In addition, a large number of microorganisms in honey could indicate secondary contamination during the processing of humans, equipment, containers, wind, dust, insects, animals and water (4).

May contain toxic compounds

When bees collect nectar from certain types of flowers, toxins from plants can be transferred to honey (10).

A known example of this is "crazy honey", caused by grayanotoxins in the nectar of Rhododendron ponticum Y Azalea pontica. Honey produced from these plants can cause dizziness, nausea, and problems with heart rate or blood pressure (10, 11, 12).

In addition, a substance known as hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) is produced during the processing and aging of honey (13).

While some research has found negative effects of HMF on health, such as damage to cells and DNA, other studies also report some positive characteristics such as antioxidant, anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties (13).

However, it is recommended that the finished products do not contain more than 40 mg of HMF per kilogram of honey (10, 13).

It can be adulterated

Honey is an expensive food that consumes a lot of time.

As such, it has been subject to adulteration for many years. Adulteration refers to adding cheap sweeteners to increase volume and reduce costs.

To make production cheaper, bees can be fed with corn sugar syrups, sugar cane and beet sugar syrups could be added directly to the final product (14, 15).

In addition, to accelerate processing, honey can be harvested before it is ripe, resulting in a higher and insecure water content (15).

Normally, bees store honey in the hive and dehydrate it to contain less than 18% water. If the honey is harvested too early, the water content may be higher than 25%. This results in a much higher risk of fermentation and bad taste (15).

It can be stored incorrectly

If the honey is stored incorrectly, it may lose some of its antimicrobial properties, become contaminated or begin to degrade.

When left open or sealed incorrectly, the water content may begin to rise above the safe level of 18%, which increases the risk of fermentation.

In addition, open containers or containers can allow honey to be contaminated with microbes from the surrounding environment. These could grow if the water content becomes too high.

Heating honey at high temperatures can also have negative effects by accelerating the degradation of color and taste, as well as by increasing the HMF content (16).

It can crystallize and degrade over time

Even when stored correctly, it is quite normal for honey to crystallize.

That's because it contains more sugars than can be dissolved. It does not mean that it has gone wrong, but the process causes some changes (1).

The crystallized honey becomes whiter and clearer. It also becomes much more opaque instead of clear, and grainy may appear (1).

It is safe to eat. However, water is released during the crystallization process, which increases the risk of fermentation (1, 17).

In addition, honey stored for a long time can become darker and begin to lose its aroma and flavor. While this is not a health risk, it may not be as tasty or attractive.

Summary Honey can be damaged when contaminated, if bees collect nectar from certain toxic plants and if they are adulterated or stored incorrectly. Crystallization is a natural process and generally does not mean that your honey has been spoiled.

How to store and handle honey correctly

To make the most of the long-lasting properties of your honey, it is important to store it correctly.

Moisture control is a key factor. If too much water enters the honey, the risk of fermentation increases and it can go wrong.

Here are some tips on best storage practices (18):

  • Store in an airtight container: The bottles or bottles purchased in the store, glass jars and stainless steel containers with airtight covers are suitable.

  • Keep in a cool and dry area: Ideally, honey should be stored below 50 ° F (10 ° C). However, storing it at a cool room temperature between 50-70 ° F (10-20 ° C) is generally fine.

  • Refrigeration: Honey can be kept in the refrigerator, if you prefer, but it can crystallize faster and become denser.

  • Hot if crystallized: If the honey crystallizes, it can become liquid by heating it and stirring it gently. However, do not overheat or boil it as it will degrade its color and flavor.

  • Avoid pollution: Avoid contaminating honey with dirty utensils, such as knives or spoons, which could allow the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds.

  • If in doubt, throw it away: If your honey tastes bad, is foamy or if you notice a lot of free water, it may be better to throw it away.

Remember that different types of honey can be seen and have a different flavor. For specific storage instructions, see the labels printed on your individual product.

Summary Honey should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry area. It is very important to limit the amount of moisture that can enter the container, as a higher water content increases the risk of fermentation.

The bottom line

Honey is a delicious and sweet food that comes in many different flavors and colors depending on where it is produced.

Because of its high sugar content and low water content, as well as its low pH value and antimicrobial properties, honey can stay fresh for years, decades or even longer.

However, under certain circumstances, it can go wrong or lose its appeal.

Honey can be contaminated by bacteria, yeasts, fungi or molds, although they usually do not reproduce in significant quantities. It may also contain toxic compounds from certain plants or it may be adulterated with sweeteners or poor quality processing.

Also, honey that is stored incorrectly will not last that long. Therefore, it is important to keep it closed in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

By buying honey from reputable suppliers and storing it correctly, you can enjoy it safely for many years.

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