Raw meat has to be prepared very carefully before it can be eaten. Raw chicken is dangerous to eat.
But honey, like vegetables, is best when eaten in its raw and natural state.
It’s easy to see why many would shy away from raw, unfiltered honey. The “pure honey” you most often see on grocery store shelves looks beautiful: clear and unblemished. The raw honey you find at farmers markets, natural food stores or local honey stands can be cloudy, with “stuff” floating in it.
It would only be natural to worry about food safety when looking at a jar of unprocessed honey – at least until you knew more about raw honey.
Here’s more about raw honey.
Honey: From Flowers to Shelves
To understand what raw honey is and why it’s safe to eat, it’s necessary to briefly trace honey’s fascinating journey from the field to your kitchen cabinet.
Honeybees collect nectar from flowers, store it in their “honey stomachs,” and bring it back to the beehive where they turn it into honey (we won’t go into details, since some are kind of disgusting). The honey is stored in the hive’s honeycomb and covered with beeswax until the bees eat it or a beekeeper harvests it.
At that point, the honey still has all sorts of debris in it, so the beekeeper lightly strains it to remove the most objectionable: large pieces of beeswax and body parts from dead bees. What remains after that is raw, natural honey – the gooey delight sold at farm stands and health food stores. (One important fact: this isn’t necessarily organic honey; “organic” describes how the source flowers have been raised. It has nothing to do with bees or beehives.)
That raw honey still has a bunch of stuff floating in it: tiny pieces of bee pollen, beeswax and propolis (bee glue used to hold the hive together). That’s the material that most people worry about, but they should want it to remain in their honey, even if they don’t realize why. We’ll explain more about these key ingredients later.
Raw honey doesn’t look clear and pristine, and it may crystallize and turn hard relatively quickly. We’ll explain that later, too. But to make their product look as appetizing as possible, honey producers “clean it up” before shipping it to supermarkets and other large vendors. That means filtering out all of the unattractive, small remnants of the honey-making process, and pasteurization at high temperatures to extend the honey’s shelf life.
What’s left is often called “regular honey” or “store honey.” It’s pretty to look at, but has most of raw honey’s natural goodness stripped out.
There are two more steps that unethical (usually foreign) producers may take. Most put the honey through a process called “ultrafiltration,” which makes the honey even smoother but removes the rest of its natural benefits. Some even add inexpensive, extra sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup to the honey, in order to increase their profits. At this point, it’s a stretch to even call the resulting product “honey.”
To sum up, the beautiful pure honey you see on the shelf looks better. But raw, unheated, unpasteurized honey is better for you.
That leaves one key question: is it really safe to eat?
The Honest Truth about Raw Honey
Any food product can be contaminated during production, and honey is no exception. But would you refuse to buy chicken or lettuce at the store, because there’s an incredibly small chance of getting food poisoning? Of course not. And the risk of getting sick from raw honey from reputable producers is even smaller.
Most peoples’ concerns center around clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that can cause the serious illness botulism. Here are the real facts about honey and botulism.
- Both raw and processed honey can contain clostridium botulism spores. Processing doesn’t kill them.
- If consumed, those spores can potentially produce intestinal botulism in the stomach after they’ve been consumed.
- However, the spores can’t live in the stomachs or digestive tracts of adults or children. They can only survive and proliferate in babies’ stomachs, because they’re not fully developed yet.
- That’s why babies should never be fed honey. After they’re one year old, intestinal botulism is no longer a risk. (Intestinal botulism is often called infant botulism, for that reason.)
- On average, there are only about 100 cases of botulism in the United States each year, and nearly three-quarters of them are caused by feeding honey (raw or processed) to infants. (1)
Cliff Notes: there’s no botulism risk in eating raw honey, unless you give it to an infant.
The only other health risk to be aware of is to people who are allergic to pollen or have serious seasonal allergies or hay fever, since they may react to the pollen contained in raw honey.
So you can eat raw honey without concern. Why should you eat it?
The Many Health Benefits of Raw Honey
We all grow up hearing how healthy honey is for us. Science proves it.
- Multiple research studies have shown conclusively that raw honey is a powerful antioxidant, because of the flavonoids, phenolic acid and phytochemicals it contains. It is able to reduce oxidative stress and minimize the damage done to the body by free radicals; that means it has the potential be an important weapon against many chronic diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer.
- Raw honey has potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, thanks to its low pH level and its ability to produce hydrogen peroxide in the body, which help fight E. coli and many staph infections. And honey is not just healthy when eaten, it can also be used topically to aid wound healing. Manuka honey is the type of honey revered most for those abilities.
- There aren’t a lot of nutrients in honey, but it does contain important amino acids, vitamins and minerals, as well as a high content of live enzymes which can benefit the digestive and immune systems.
- And as you probably found out when you were told how healthy honey is, its ability to soothe sore throats is legendary.
It’s important to understand that these benefits don’t exist equally in all types of honey. Research on the substance’s many health benefits shows that they’re primarily found in raw, unfiltered and unheated honey. Other “honey products” like store honey and ultra-filtered honey may taste great, but simply aren’t as good for you.
And that all traces back to the “stuff” in raw honey that initially makes so many people nervous. Propolis, pollen and beeswax contain most of the substances which provide raw honey with its medicinal and health benefits. Once honey is filtered and pasteurized, those small bits and pieces are gone – and so are their beneficial effects.
One last bit of housekeeping: we mentioned earlier that raw honey will crystallize into a semi-solid or solid form faster than store honey. That’s also because of the extra “stuff” in unfiltered honey; when glucose falls out of honey’s supersaturated solution, it looks for something to attach to. The propolis, pollen and beeswax floating around in raw honey make that easy – so crystals are formed quickly and the honey gets hard.
Not to worry, though, crystallized honey is simply honey in a solid state. Heat it gently in a warm water bath, and you’ll have your delicious – and healthy – raw honey back and ready for use.