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Foods -- Sweeteners

Is honey from the mountains safe to eat?

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Honey generally does not support the growth of harmful bacteria. Therefore, microbial growth in honey usually results in spoilage rather than the formation of an unsafe food. Processing the honey can kill the yeast that might cause spoilage. However, honey can be a source of natural toxins. Processing to decrease spoilage. To begin with, sugar tolerant yeasts are always present in honey. If there is too much moisture in the honey, these yeasts can ferment the liquid portion of the honey causing the honey to become inedible. To prevent fermentation, honey can be carefully heated to kill the yeast or drive off the excess moisture. Honey does not need to be heated if it is at the appropriate moisture content level. There is no need to heat it before bottling it. If the honey has been "capped off" by the bee, then it will be at the correct moisture level. The moisture level can also be measured using a gauge. Heat honey in a double boiler to 145 F for 30 minutes. Carefully controlled heating does not damage the honey. After heating, pour into a sterilized jar and cap tightly. Store honey in a dry location that is between 70 to 75 F. Storing honey in the refrigerator will cause it to granulate very quickly. To remove or dissolve the sugar granules, bring a pot of water to boiling and then place the jar with its lid removed into the pot making sure the water level is no higher than the honey level in the jar. The granules should disappear as the honey warms. Repeat this process if the granules are not gone by the time the honey has cooled. Honey intoxication is caused by the consumption of honey produced from the nectar of rhododendrons. The grayanotoxins cause the intoxication. The intoxication is rarely fatal and generally lasts for no more than 24 hours. Generally, the disease induces dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting shortly after the toxic honey is ingested. Other symptoms that can occur are low blood pressure or shock. Because the intoxication is rarely fatal and recovery generally occurs within 24 hours, intervention may not be required. In humans, symptoms of poisoning usually occur after a few minutes to two or more hours and include salivation, vomiting, and abnormal sensations. Results from the ingestion of grayanotoxin contaminated honey, although it may result from the ingestion of the leaves, flowers, and nectar of rhododendrons. Not all rhododendrons produce grayanotoxins. A number of toxin species are native to the U.S. In the eastern half of the U.S. grayanotoxin-contaminated honey may be derived from other members of the botanical family Ericaceae, to which rhododendrons belong. Mountain laurel and sheep laurel are probably the most important sources of the toxins. Honey intoxication is rare. Some cases might be due to an increased consumption of imported honey. Others may result from the ingestion of unprocessed honey. Individuals who obtain honey from farmers who have only a few hives are at increased risk. The pooling of massive quantities of honey during commercial processing generally dilutes any toxic substance.

PREPARED BY: Angela M. Fraser, Ph.D., Associate Professor/Food Safety Specialist, NC State University in July 2004

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