Honey is a food made by honeybees. It can be made from flower nectar or from other plant secretions. This raw material is combined with substances produced by the bees themselves and stored and left to cure in the beehive inside wax honeycombs.
Since honey is 80% sugar it does not need any artificial preservatives. This is why it is very stable, although it may be altered by unhygienic practices carried out during its extraction, processing, packaging or storage.
Although it is very safe in terms of health, honey may present toxicological and microbiological hazards, as well as hazards from chemical contamination related to pesticide residues, which must be controlled by testing carried out by the health authorities.
Some plants produce toxic honey. The historian Xenofon wrote 2400 years ago about poisoned soldiers who were delirious and suffered digestive problems after eating honey from certain plants. But this is exceptional nowadays. Although bees might occasionally gather toxic nectar, it becomes so diluted that it is very difficult for hazardous concentrations to result.
As to the microbial load of honey, it is usually very low because honey is not a favourable medium for germs. Honey, however, has been identified as a source of contamination in cases of infantile botulism. Botulism is a disease caused by a toxic substance that is extremely potent even in infinitesimal amounts. It is produced by a microbe known as Clostridium botulinum.
Honey and similar products usually contain endospores that are resistant forms of the microbe and that are able to withstand the highly concentrated sugar in honey as well as unfavourable environmental factors such as dryness, heat and sunlight. If these spores reach a baby’s bowels they may germinate and produce the botulism toxin, which could trigger a serious and possibly lethal disease. Most cases occur during the first six months of life due to low defences at that age. This is why it is recommended that children under a year old are not given honey and that their dummies are not dipped in it.
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