The Risks of Eating Raw Honey

The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) reported that a number of people in certain regions in the Mainland died after eating unprocessed raw honey recently. While investigations on the cause of death are underway, the CFDA advised consumers not to eat raw honey for the sake of prudence.

Some unprocessed or raw honey products including raw honey, comb honey, wild honey, etc. are gaining popularity in recent years. Some consumers associate raw honey (i.e. unfiltered, unheated/unpasteurized honey) or wild honey (i.e. from bees that live in the wild) with specific health benefits. However, it is important to note that these products can carry some risks.

Honey may contain natural toxins

As honey bees can forage up to several kilometres from the hives, the honey they produced often originates from wide varieties of plants, sometimes including poisonous plants. If the density of flowering poisonous plants or in certain cases, honeydew from insects that feed on poisonous plants is high during a particular period, the honey may accumulate significant amount of natural toxins such as grayanotoxin that causes "Mad honey poisoning".

The symptoms of poisoning due to honey consumption depend on the types and levels of the toxins. Common symptoms include nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, low blood pressure , shock, or even death may occur. For commercial honey, the pooling of massive quantities of honey during proper processing generally dilutes any toxic substance. On the contrary, raw or wild honey from small-scale beekeepers or honey hunters may not undergo any process to dilute the level of various toxins.

Raw honey may contain allergens

During processing, honey is filtered to the extent that all or most of the fine particles and pollen grains normally found in suspension will be removed. Unlike processed honey, raw honey may contain small amounts of pollen grains. According to literature, there were cases of allergic reactions after ingestion of raw honey that contained pollen. Symptoms could range from itching in the oral mucosa to anaphylactic shock. People who are allergic to pollen or with severe seasonal allergies (hay fever) should be aware of the potential risk of eating raw honey.

Infants less than one year old should not be fed any types of honey

Furthermore, some people believe raw honey is free from bacteria due to its anti-microbial properties. In fact, honey including raw honey can contain the spore forming bacterium, Clostridium botulinum, that causes intestinal botulism (also called infant botulism). Intestinal botulism mainly affects children less than one year old. Early symptom is constipation, followed by lethargy, difficulties in feeding, generalised muscle weakness and weak cry. While most cases require hospitalisation, fatal cases are rare.

Advice to public

  1. Buy honey from a reliable source or apiary .
  2. For the sake of prudence, people who are allergic to pollen or with severe seasonal allergies (hay fever) are not advised to eat raw honey.
  3. Grayanotoxin-containing honey may cause a burning sensation in the throat, and honey with bitter or astringent taste should be discarded.
  4. Travellers to areas such as the Black Sea region of Turkey, North America, Korea, Japan, Nepal and New Zealand should pay special attention as there have been reported cases of grayanotoxin poisoning which were attributed to honey from these areas.
  5. Avoid feeding honey to infants less than one year old.

Advice to Trade

  1. The trade should ensure that their honey products, whether imported or locally produced, comply with local regulation concerning food safety and are fit for human consumption