We’re all smarter grocery shoppers than we used to be. We’ve learned how and why to read food labels, we understand the reasons to buy products without GMOs, and we carefully check the expiration dates of products before buying them.
However, common wisdom tells us that there’s no need to check the sell-by date of one product: honey. (The National Honey Board and the American Honey Producers Association tell us that, too.) That’s because – supposedly, at least – honey is the only food that never spoils.
Is that really true? Does honey ever go bad, or does it have a shelf life?
Crystallized Honey Is Not Spoiled Honey
Some people believe that honey only lasts a short time before it becomes unusable.
That’s an understandable, although mistaken, belief. It’s very true that nearly every jar of honey will eventually solidify into cloudy crystals, and it can happen quite quickly depending on the type of honey you’re storing. The misconception is that crystalized honey is bad and has to be thrown out.
In reality, the honey crystallization process is natural and inevitable. It happens because the water content of honey (less than 20%) isn’t enough to keep the amount of glucose and fructose sugars in honey (about 70%) dissolved forever. When the glucose begins to fall out of solution and becomes solid again, that’s when honey crystallizes. The process happens even faster in varieties of honey that contain high amounts of glucose (like clover honey). It also occurs faster in raw honey, because crystals form around the pollen that hasn’t been filtered out.
If you put crystallized honey into a warm water bath (be sure not to heat a plastic container, and don’t use too much water), you can turn it right back into liquid honey with the same taste and qualities of your “old honey.”
So solidified honey hasn’t gone bad. But does honey expire at some point?
The Long Shelf Life of Honey
Honey is legendary for its long shelf life, which can be credited to a combination of several important properties.
First, honey is quite acidic, with an average pH of 3.9. That low pH environment can kill many bacteria which might otherwise cause spoilage. Second, honey contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase, secreted by bees to help preserve the honey they make. The glucose oxidase converts some of the honey’s sugar into gluconic acid, creating the acidic environment just mentioned; but it also creates hydrogen peroxide, which is an antibacterial agent that stops microorganisms from growing in the honey.
Finally, according to scientists at the University of California at Davis, substances like honey that have high sugar content but relatively low moisture content prevent the growth of many fungi and bacteria, and are so dense that microbes can’t obtain the oxygen they need to grow and reproduce. (It’s true that honey has nearly 20% water content, but because it also contains so much sugar the solution is “supersaturated,” making the water unavailable for other organisms to use).
With most bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms unable to grow in honey, it’s able to last a very, very long time on the shelf. Does that mean that honey lasts forever?
It’s Possible for Honey to Go Bad – Sometimes
Archaeologists have discovered 3,000-year old pots of honey in ancient Egyptian tombs, and the honey was still perfectly fine to eat. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the jar of honey on your shelf will always last that long.
- Any product is only as good – or safe – as the facility in which is it processed. Some honey, particularly cheap varieties sold in supermarkets, may have been diluted with other sweeteners or harvested before it’s ready. In both cases, that can increase the honey’s water content to levels where fermentation can happen or microorganisms can grow. Secondary contamination can also occur during handling by the beekeeper or during processing, due to unclean equipment or improper storage.
- A small percentage of honey samples have shown the presence of a neurotoxin (C. botulinum) which doesn’t harm adults, but can cause serious cases of infant botulism in children under the age of one. That’s why it’s never a good idea to feed honey to very young children.
- Honey that’s stored in improper environments is at risk for fermentation or contamination because of higher-than-desirable moisture content. Even pure honey is at risk in your home pantry; always store honey at or slightly below room temperature, and in airtight containers, or it can definitely go bad.
Handle honey properly, and you can spend your time worrying about the expiration dates for your produce, cheese and meats. Your honey will be just fine.