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

September 5, 2008

“[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.