Can honey kill you? Well, yes actually. It can.

“[Botulism] is caused by neurotoxic proteins so poisonous that one-millionth of a gram of them can kill a man and one pint would be enough to kill everyone on earth.”

-New York Times

Honey contains spores from the deadly bacterium that causes Botulism

Honey contains spores from the deadly bacterium that causes Botulism

Honey has always been remarked for the length of time which it can be stored without spoiling. It is a unique substance in that it has many antimicrobial and antifungal properties to it. For example, it is so high in sugars that very little water exists in it, thus most microorganisms cannot grow in this ‘hypertonic’ environment. It likely could be stored forever if its container is kept airtight and in a cool area.

So how could this un-spoilable substance cause as deadly an illness as Botulism? The secret lies in the bees. Bees, while collecting pollen, are continually in contact with soil and dust particles, which inevitably make it back to the hive and into the honey being produced. These particles nearly always contain spores of the common bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the causative agent of Botulism.

Now, on their own, these spores never cause illness. Spores are a dormant form of the bacterium, but when these spores are put into ideal conditions (with sufficient nutrients, water, etc) they germinate. The bacteria itself will not hurt you either. Yet, when in a low oxygen environment like your stomach, they begin to produce a protein called botulin. This is a neurotoxin, meaning it is a substance known to be poisonous to nerve tissue.

The neurotoxin affects the body by interfering with the way nerves tell muscles to contract, and thus move. This limpness is termed ‘flaccid paralysis.’ Death typically occurs via respiratory failure, when the neurotoxin causes the diaphragm muscle in the chest to no longer move. Without the diaphragm, the lungs can no longer fill with air and thus one becomes unable to breathe.

Yet, if Botulism is so bad, then why do we eat honey and never become ill? The answer is in our immune system and our digestive system. In a healthy individual, the stomach and immune system will destroy the botulism spores before they germinate and begin to produce the toxin. However, those whose immune systems are compromised, such as HIV/AIDS patients or infants, are unable to combat the Botulism spores. These individuals are highly susceptible to being infected with the bacteria.

Botulism spores

Botulism spores

Botulism is not only contracted through eating honey, either. Often the soil that contains botulism spores ends up on the outside of some fruits and vegetables commonly used in canning. Due to the low oxygen environment in a can, botulism spores often germinate and produce large amounts of the botulin neurotoxin, which when ingested, cause the botulism illness. This can be prevented with proper sterile technique during the canning process.

Of all botulism cases, only 25% are food born, but 72% are infantile botulism. This is indicative of how many parents are unaware that honey can be highly toxic to infants.

The fundamental message here is that honey could kill you, but only under the right circumstances. It is important to be aware of the dangers botulism spores pose to individuals with weakened immune systems. Because babies are so often afflicted with infantile botulism, it becomes aparant that this awareness of botulism in honey is not widespread enough.  Botulism is nearly extinct in modern countries, and these cases of infantile botulism are highly preventable via dissementation of this simple lesson: don’t feed honey to babies.

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12 Responses to Can honey kill you? Well, yes actually. It can.

  1. liosalfar says:

    Well, you’re right but that’s not the end of the story. Honey is also rich in antibiotic agents and also contains hydroxide (a highly reactive agent that will kill many bacteria). This is not to play down its dangers – those susceptible to botulism shouldn’t rely on honey’s curative properties to make it safe, any more than they should trust pasteurized honey (which is most of they honey sold) to be bacteria-free. Neither are all honeys equally rich in antibacterial agents – not that you can trust much of the literature out there to do a comparison as it is mostly sponsored by honey producers.

    In conclusion, I’ll agree with everything in the blog in the intended contexts, BUT if skillfully and knowledgeably wielded, honey is deadlier to bacteria than to most humans.

  2. reddecember says:

    I agree, honey is a fascinating compound. I’ve recently been researching to learn more about manuka honey, and how some companies have started to create a kind of wound dressing that is made with honey. Some highly antibiotic resistant bacteria (ex Pseudomonas aeruginosa) that often badly infect wounds, are killed off by this type of honey treatment.

    Evidently, as you mentioned, some of the reasons for honey’s antimicrobial (and antifungal) abilities are that it has an enzyme which produces hydrogen peroxide, it’s acidic, it has very little water, and more. It even helps the body’s tissue to regenerate. Maybe I should write another post about how honey is especially good for you … . I am curious how a person who would use this type of honey in a wound does not end up with botulism growing in the wound (assuming the person might be slightly immuno-compromised.)

    More info: http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/evidence.shtml

  3. bicycleman says:

    reddecember,

    I have the same question. From what I’ve read the botulism spores from honey can germinate in a wound. But, I think you probably have the same risks of getting botulism spores into a wound from kicking up dust in your house. I’m going to write a paper on this later this month. Please check my website and reply if you find any inconsistencies.

  4. The topic is quite hot in the net right now. What do you pay attention to while choosing what to write about?

  5. The botulism spore in honey has not been noted in domestic or imported honeys for the last 50 years in North America. Hygiene and lab controls, especially in the organic honeys are more severe today. So, knowing that organic manuka honey contain more bee enzymes and good quality antiseptic solutions would certainly be a choice I would take rather than eating white refined sugar, which is known to feed cancer cells in the body.

    Thank you.

  6. Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a entirely different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Great choice of colors!

  7. how does one print this article off as not many people are aware of this

  8. maryssa says:

    I wonder why they don’t mention this to us mothers at the hospital.

  9. Do you think it’s possible to translate this posting to other languages like Spanish? This would probably reach one more large portion of people today that may not see it in English. Do you think it’s possible?

  10. Hi there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted
    to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading your blog posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same subjects?
    Many thanks!

  11. […] Do not give honey to children under 1 years of age. […]

  12. Hi, I check your blog on a regular basis. Your humoristic style is
    witty, keep up the good work!

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