Based on the discovery of perfectly preserved honey pots in Egyptian tombs, honey is credited with possessing an eternal shelf life, says Natasha Geiling of “Smithsonian” magazine. However, modern honey production aspires to more modest ambitions. Realistically, once the family starts opening and closing the honey jar for servings, the clock starts ticking.
In a sealed container, honey can remain stable for centuries, although the color will darken and the warm, sweet flavor will diminish. The substance’s resistance to spoiling stems from its low moisture content, low pH and antimicrobial properties, meaning that it is primed to change very little over time. Once the honey is exposed to air, however, the sugar crystals absorb available moisture voraciously, at which point bacteria and microorganisms can survive. Commercially processed honey typically has an estimated shelf life of up to two years.
Although natural raw honey, which can be cloudy in color and contain crystal clusters or honeycomb, is perfectly safe to eat, the consumer preference is generally for light, clear honey. The latter is achieved by filtering to remove pollen and other foreign particles as well as pasteurization. Commercially sold honey is usually pasteurized to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, delaying crystallization and limiting yeast to maintain a clear product. Honey labeled as “raw” is unfiltered, unpasteurized and contains foreign particles and beneficial antibacterial enzymes that are otherwise removed once the honey is heated to above 160 F, according to Western Sage’s KB Foods.
Extending Shelf Life
Honey should be stored between 64 and 75 F, as heat will ultimately damage the quality. Unprocessed honey, on the other hand, should be stored below 50 degrees F. In fact, for both processed and unprocessed honey, cool temperatures below 32 degrees will guarantee the sustainability of the honey’s color, flavor and aroma. Unlike molasses, which will degrade over time, honey contains hydrogen peroxide produced by an enzyme in the bees themselves. In combination with honey’s natural acidity, the hydrogen peroxide acts as a preservative.
Unprocessed honey naturally crystallizes over time as its supersaturated sugars revert to solid form at room temperature, particularly when the honey contains small particles of pollen. Heating, however, dissolves the crystals. In unpasteurized honey, the liquid left behind as the honey solidifies can ferment, which typically occurs between 52 and 59 degrees F, spoiling the honey. Consequently, natural honey should be kept sealed and cool. Pasteurized or processed honey, on the other hand, does not crystallize. Bear in mind that only honey produced by bees can be labeled as such. If sweeteners such as corn syrup have been added, the jar must be appropriately announced as a blend, reports the FDA.
References and ResourcesNational Honey Board: Shelf Life
National Honey Board: FAQ
The Smithsonian Magazine: The Science behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life
US FDA: Proper Labeling of Honey and Honey Products
National Honey Board: Infant Botulism, A Summary, P4
Western Sage Honey: Frequently Asked Questions
ResourcesHuffington Post: Why Doesn’t Honey Spoil?
New York Daily News: Is Your Honey Really Honey?
Eurasia Net: Georgia Unearths the World’s Oldest Honey