My wife was recently reading aloud a list of foods infants should not be given. Honey is on that list because it can harbor botulism. This came as a very unpleasant surprise to me. I was under the impression that honey is the only food (or only natural food, at least) that doesn’t spoil. I Googled around a bit and read some online articles stating that botulism in honey is very common, though typically only harmful to infants. How is that possible? I thought botulism, or the toxins it produces, can sicken and kill anyone. Moreover, I’ve always thought that just a little botulinum toxin can sicken or kill a lot of people. So do the enzymes in honey somehow neutralize the botulinum toxin? Or do the honey enzymes prevent the botulism bacteria from producing the toxins in the first place? If either is the case, then why would infants be in danger? Finally, just how common IS botulism in honey?
No, neither is the case. Botulism spores are present in most honey. In an adult, this is okay, since our guts have air in them, and botulism cannot make its toxin in the presence of air - it is anaerobic. Babies’ guts don’t have much if any air in them, so botulism loves to reproduce and put out its toxin in the intestines of babies. As babies grow, they swallow air, and some of it comes up in burps and some of it “aerates” the intestines, and some bacteria living in the intestines put out gasses as a byproduct of their metabolism. By the time they’re two, toddlers have got enough air in there to make it a hostile environment for botulism and therefore safe for honey.
“How common” as in numbers, I leave to another poster. I don’t know.
Interesting. I wonder if I’m more at risk now that I (effectively) don’t have a stomach. My esophagus goes straight to the small intestine. I’ll have to ask my doc the next time I see him…
Is it really oxygen in the GI tract that protects against spores in honey? I thought it was the microbial fauna in the GI tract that gave protection.
Yes. Here’s another thread with cites and everything. Careful, don’t post to it and wake the zombie thread!
One clarification: I was a bit sloppy in my first post. Technically “botulism” refers to the toxin and Clostridium botulinum is the bacteria carried in honey as spores that, in the absence of oxygen, settles down in the gut to raise a family and in the process, produces botulism.
Unless I am mistaken, the idea that it was the presence of oxygen that prevented spore growth in adults comes from a misreading of a link to How Stuff Works. What they are actually saying, I have always heard, and other cites confirm, is that it is the much more acidic environment of an adults stomach, along with a lot more microbiota kill the Clostridium Botulinum.
Infants don’t have the microbiota and don’t have the acidity, therefore they are susceptible to growth of the bacteria and botulism poisoning.
My Botulism & Honey thread got lots of helpful answers as well. I think the consensus was that babies under 12 months are at significant risk, and all other people are highly unlikely to contract it (but still at a very negligible risk).