Why does honey not spoil?

I read that it doesn’t spoil, and that honey from 400 years ago would probably as fresh as the day it was made. Why?

Strong sugar solutions are quite a hostile environment for bacteria; osmosis (the transfer of solvents from a weak solution to a stronger one) through the cell membranes dehydrates and kills them.

Honey has even been used as an anti-germ weapon. I think the Egyptions, under the medical studies of High Priest Imhotep (yes, THAT Imhotep), used it in recorded history. presumably, it was a folk remedy before that.

Honey is still used by some of us homeopathic freaks as a salve for cuts and burns. And combined with peanut butter, it makes a tasty sandwich. Try THAT with Bactine.

I forgot to mention that social insects also often secrete antibiotic compounds; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that compounds are found in honey.

I’ve heard this too, on an email “fact list”. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly true-honey doesn’t spoil. That being said it does chrystalize, making honey retrieval from the bottom of a big plastic bear rather difficult as I found out this weekend. In other words, I don’t think that honey from 400 years ago would be fresh.

Tip: pop said bear into the microwave for a few seconds and Bob will most assuredly be your uncle.

Sod 400… edible honey has been found inside Egyptian pyramids, thousands of years old. Honey doesn’t spoil, but it does segment (I believe that’s the correct word, English not being my primary language) which you can see in jars of honey even after a relatively short while. Give it a go with a wooden spoon and soon you’ll have perfectly good honey again.

Crap! Where were you over the weekend when I figured it’d be better to buy a whole new bear? :smiley:

Grumble…It’s okay, the new bear loves me just the same…Granted I haven’t taken out his insides and smeared them on an english muffin yet…

Ok, someone explain the whole honey/botulism relationship, please.

The word you were looking for was sediment, yes?
If so, almost, but not quite correct.

What happens to honey during aging is that the sugar crystalises. The water content of honey varies, but is around 15%. This means that we have a very strong solution of sugar in water,and it can easily become a supercritical solution.
What can happen is that the sugar forms crystals with an even lower water content. The remaining liquid will thus have a higher water content, and it might even be high enough for microbes to survive. This cite(PDF) claims that a water content of 19% is enough for it to start fermenting.
One way to reverse the crystalization is to heat up the honey. Warm water can hold much more sugar without crystals forming.
One way to prevent crystalization of all the sugar is to form artificial crystalisation nuclei, by stirring the honey. This will break up existing crystals, and the resulting solution will contain many suspended mini-crystals, but will not form into larger crystals. It will look a bit cloudy, but don’t worry.

IANAS<ientist> but mange…may i call you Mange? Anyway i believe you accidentally reversed the definition of osmosis

Well, according to this, it’s not a very common problem, but might be one for infants:

There are also other health issues with honey. The bees collect fluids secreted by plants, and some of them are dangerous to us, but not to the bees. I don’t remember exactly what circumstances to avoid, but you can find it all in On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.

I think he pretty much nailed it. Here is Merriam-Websters take:

Sounds to me very much like

Or did I miss something?

Nope; maybe you’re thinking of Reverse Osmosis? - a process commonly used to get drinkable water from seawater? - in this case, the solvent does indeed move from the stronger solution to the weaker one, but that’s because the natural osmotic pressure is overcome by applying external pressure to the stronger solution.

I think jonpluc may have misread “transfer of solvents”. The ‘solvent’ is the thing that other things disolve in. Therefore, when you have two solvents (water, in this example) separated by a membrane (bug cells), and one has a high concentration of a substance (sugar, in the case of honey) and the other (the bug) has a low concentration, the solvent from the low concentration will seap into the higher concentration in an attempt to equalize the concentration.

The sugar stays put, the water moves across the membrane.


“Strong sugar solutions are quite a hostile environment for bacteria”

Don’t certain bacteria feed on sugar?

Many bacteria feed on sugar, but if the concentration is too high, they are unable to do so because the osmotic pressure between the fluid inside the bacterial cell and the honey outside is such that the water migrates through the cell membrane and out of the bacteria; without sufficient fluid inside the bacterial cell, the cell dies.

Lordvor was correct i did misread the solvents part as being the object and not the liquid its dissolved in. My apologies :slight_smile:

checking in here.

Honey is fantastic on cuts. As is cayenne pepper and spiderwebbing, but there ya go.

Be very careful of zapping the bear in the microwave though, Meatros. It heats up very quickly and you’ll risk melting the bear (making a massive gooey mess) and the steam/heat of the honey will scald the skin of you quicker than a gnat can bat its eyelashes.