Can Honey Go Bad

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We all know it has a long shelf life – but can honey go bad – ever? In nature, it represents a stable food source that honey bees need to survive the cold Winter months. Thankfully, that property of honey holds true for us as well – it has the ability to last for a very long time without spoiling. But, is honey truly spoil-proof – and if not-how can you tell?

Honey stored in jar with loose lid that may allow the honey to go bad. .

As a beekeeper, I often find myself with several 5 gallon buckets of honey. This represents a lot of hard work by the bees and myself. I don’t want to it spoil – so I really on knowing how to store honey to keep it safe.

Does Honey Go Bad or Spoil?

I’m sure you have heard the stories about honey being found-that is thousands of years old and still not spoiled. 

They are true – though I have heard little about how good that old stuff tastes. The flavor has to be undesirable even if it is safe to eat.

Many consumers have stories about jars they have kept for 10 years or more that are still edible and delicious. 

This is a common occurrence though some of these containers are thrown away out of fear or caution.

What is the Composition of Honey?

One of the secrets to honey’s ability to not go bad is its composition. Honey is a super saturated sugar that is created by bees from collected flower nectar or insect secretions.

It is a raw food composed of sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose and sucrose. The fact that it has a high sugar content is one reason it can last a long time without spoiling. But there are other factors at work as well.

Reasons Honey Resists Spoilage

  • high sugar content – low water
  • acidic properties
  • enzymes from bees

Ripe honey has a low water content. Beekeepers use a honey refractometer to make sure their crop is ready to harvest.

This low water content environment makes it impossible for bacteria to grow. All of the moisture is sucked out of the bacteria and causing them to die.

In spite of its smooth sweet taste, honey is actually rather acidic. The pH of honey is about 3.26 – 4.48, few organisms can grow in it. Bacteria such as salmonella or E colic are not about to prosper in this acidic environment.

During the conversion process (nectar to honey), the bees add invertase to raw nectar. This causes the glucose oxidase enzymes to produce both hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid.

These compounds work together to prevent the growth of fungi, bacteria and other micro-organisms that cause food to spoil.

Honey crystallizing in a jar image.

Factors that Affect the Shelf Life

Fresh ripe honey that is properly harvested from the hive and stored correctly is ready to last for a very long time. But, there are things that we do to it that can affect the shelf life.

Mostly, these related to the quality of the honey. By this I mean, flavor and honey color that relates to how it looks and tastes.

When you are choosing a place to keep honey – these factors are important:

  • exposure to moisture
  • storage temperature
  • light exposure
  • additions to pure honey

Moisture

Protecting your honey from moisture is one of the most important things way to prevent honey from going bad.

Honey is hygroscopic. This means that it absorbs water from anything in it or around. It can even absorb water from the air.

Small amounts for a short term in a cute honey pot – ok. But, that is not the best way store honey long term.

Storage Temperature

Temperature also plays a role in keeping honey at its best quality. Very high temperatures may damage some of its antimicrobial properties.

However, lower temperatures can increase the rate of crystallization. Honey crystallization is a natural process that does not necessarily mean that anything is wrong.

But, it may not be the way you want to enjoy it. No, fear – you can decrystallize honey back to it’s natural state with a little patience.

Light

Keeping honey in bright light can cause it to darken faster. This does not mean that the honey is bad or unsafe to consume- it is more of a cosmetic issue. Still, a dark container or dark cupboard is best.

Things that Make Honey Spoil

Despite its remarkable abilities, honey can go bad under certain circumstances. When things are added to it or it is stored improperly this interferes with its special abilities.

  • contaminates or added substances
  • crystallization over a long time

Added Substances

Worldwide, selling honey is big business and not every business owner is honest. It is not uncommon to find product (especially that from other countries) that has been adulterated with substances such as corn syrup, molasses etc. 

This is done to stretch the amount of product for sale farther. By adding sweet imitations that are cheaper to produce, the seller has more product.

Any added material can upset the sugar/water balance and enzyme content and result in spoilage. Sometimes, we do this ourselves unintentionally.

We must be careful when making infused products like honey fire cider, or honey, ginger, lemon tea -to ensure that we are not adding too much moisture. It is wise to watch for signs of spoiling.

Bubbles and foam at top of jar with yeasty smell indicates fermentation image.

Fermentation Over a Long Period

Crystallization is a natural process that happens to most varieties of honey. When your honey crystallizes or “turns to sugar” do not be alarmed.

You can easily fix it and convert it back into liquid form. But, some folks love solid honey. We even use a recipe to make creamed honey at home.

However, there is one situation when crystallization can result in honey that goes bad. Bees ripen honey by reducing the amount of moisture to a stable level – this is often considered to be around 18%.

In a jar undergoing crystallization, as sugar crystals form, excess water is released. If the honey had a border-line high water content to begin with, this excess moisture could result in fermentation. 

Signs that Honey Has Gone Bad

How can you tell that your jar of honey has gone bad? The process involves mostly your sense of sight, smell and taste.

A spoiled jar of honey may become cloudy and grainy – but this may just be crystallization so don’t be too quick to throw it out. Does it smell sour? Taste a tiny bit to see if the flavor seems off.

Any sign of mold means it has gone bad and should be discarded immediately. Please do not feed it to wild bees – it can carry spores from American Foulbrood that may harm wild colonies.

Fermentation is one of the most common signs of honey that has spoiled. When this happens you get a foamy bubbly appearance and a yeasty odor. That’s great if you want to make mead but not a desirable trait for a jar of table honey.

FAQs

How long can honey last before it spoils?

Raw honey with a low moisture content can last indefinitely when stored properly.

Can honey be frozen to extend its shelf life?

Yes, freezing honey is a great method of storage – you can even do so with comb.

Can fermented honey still be consumed?

I would not eat fermented honey or any that smells, yeasty or sour.

It is safe to eat honey that has been stored for a long time?

If it looks good, smells like honey and does not taste sour or yeasty – honey that has been stored for a long time is likely okay to eat.

Why does honey have an expiration date?

Even though it has a very long shelf life, honey (being a food product) must have an expiration date on the jar. It is a food industry rule.

Final Thoughts

Consuming spoiled honey can result in food poisoning and be a serious threat to your health. But, when properly bottled and stored, honey rarely goes bad or spoils. 

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find something with a longer shelf life. But, keep in mind that the flavor and color of stored honey can change over time – even if it is still safe to consume. If you have a serious doubt – throw it out.