Is Raw Honey Safe?

Raw honey is good for your immune system—at least, that’s what the raw foodies say.

It makes sense at first glance. After all, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if the pasteurization process kills the good microbes with the bad ones. And research suggests that small doses of the pollen in raw, unfiltered honey may work similarly to an allergy shot.

But is raw honey safe? That’s an issue health and food experts are still debating.

Why Is Honey Pasteurized?

Did you know that the FDA provides no official definition of the term pasteurized honey? This is because honey is not pasteurized for health reasons. Honey is primarily heated to keep it from crystallizing. Pasteurization also kills off naturally occurring yeasts in the honey, eliminating even the remotest chance that the honey could ferment. Thus, heat treatment ensures that the product can sit on the grocery store shelf or in the warehouse for longer periods of time.

Unheated honey fights many types of bacteria in several ways:

  • Low moisture content.
  • Low pH levels.
  • High sugar content.
  • Presence of beneficial bacteria.
  • Hydrogen peroxide content.

Lab testing has even demonstrated that honey can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This natural antibiotic property is necessary, as it permits bees to store honey in their hives for long periods of time without the risk of spoilage. It is also why raw honey was used for many years to treat wounds and sore throats; it wasn’t just soothing, it fought the bacteria causing the problem.

Because of the antibacterial properties of honey, pasteurizing it gains nothing in the way of food safety. In fact, heat treatment puts an abrupt halt to honey’s hydrogen peroxide activity and kills off some of the beneficial bacteria.

Botulism and Honey

So why do some health experts advise against eating raw honey, particularly if you are immuno-compromised? Cancer organizations regularly advise chemotherapy patients to steer clear of raw honey. Likewise, recipients of organ transplants are cautioned to eat only pasteurized honey. The reason given by these experts is that pathogens could be present.

This may seem surprising, given the ability of honey to kill many pathogens. However, there is one pathogen known to lurk in honey—Clostridium botulinum spores. Clostridium botulinum is the bacteria that causes botulism. It usually enters beehives in the form of spores traveling in dust, pollen, or water. C. botulinum spores themselves are not harmful, even when consumed. But if the bacteria colonizes the intestinal tract, it produces the toxin that is directly responsible for botulism and its associated symptoms.

Of course, most of us will not develop botulism after eating honey, raw or otherwise. Once humans pass the age of one, immune and digestive systems develop to the point where Clostridium botulinum spores are highly unlikely to develop into full-fledged, toxin-producing bacteria colonies. This is fortunate for us, because C. botulinum spores are extremely common throughout the environment, particularly in dirt and dust. Most of us regularly consume these spores in our daily diet.

Also note that C. botulinum cannot colonize honey itself. This pathogen cannot withstand the antibacterial properties of honey, so it defends itself by going dormant in the form of a protective spore. The spore requires a low-acid, low-sugar, low-oxygen environment in which to develop. The only way to get botulism from honey is to consume spores and to have a compromised immune system that allows the bacteria to emerge from dormancy, colonize the large intestine, and produce toxins.

All honey labels, including those on heat-treated and ultra-filtered honeys, contain a warning against feeding honey to babies under one year of age. Honey frequently contains Clostridium botulinum spores, no matter how it has been processed. It takes high heat and high pressure to kill C. botulinum—a pressure cooker operated at 250°F will kill the spores in three minutes, while boiling at standard pressure and a temperature of 212°F will take over six hours to work. Compare this with honey pasteurization, where the honey is heated to a temperature of 145°F to 170°F for up to 30 minutes.

In other words, pasteurization does not eliminate the risk for getting botulism from honey. It simply creates a more visually appealing product with a longer shelf life.

Helpful Resources

Sweet Facts—FAQ
Follow the links to learn the how and why of honey pasteurization.

“Growth inhibition of foodborne pathogens and food spoilage organisms by select raw honeys”
Interesting study demonstrating the effects raw honey has on harmful bacteria.

Infant Botulism and Honey
Explains how the C. botulinum spores can contaminate honey.