Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Honey of a Dilemma

A recent study reported by Pennsylvania State University has confirmed what Grandma told us many years ago. The best remedy for a sore throat is a spoonful of honey. Unfortunately, for children under one year old, eating honey carries a risk of developing infant botulism.

Infant botulism was first diagnosed in California nearly 30 years ago, and is thought to be one of the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the typical form of botulism, the microbe grows in a food and produces its toxin before the food is eaten. But infant botulism results when the victim ingests spores of Clostridium botulinum (or one or two other species of Clostridium). Those spores then germinate inside the intestines, and the toxin-producing bacteria multiply.

Symptoms of infant botulism include lethargy, constipation, and poor muscle tone. Infant botulism can be deadly if untreated. It is essential to have your infant seen by a doctor as soon as you suspect that something is wrong. Victims of infant botulism require an extended hospital stay - often in a pediatric intensive care unit and, usually, with mechanical breathing assistance for part of their stay. Intravenous treatment with Botulism Immune Globulin can speed up the recovery period. With appropriate care, the chances for a full recovery are good.

There is some controversy over the extent to which honey is the source of infant botulism. It is certainly not the only source of C. botulinum spores. The microbe is a normal inhabitant of soil and has been found in house dust and the contents of vacuum cleaner bags. But contaminated honey has been linked to some of the cases that have been reported in the United States, Japan and a handful of other countries, including Denmark.

An obvious question is whether certain types of honey (raw, pasteurized, organic, commercial) are safer than others. I have not found any evidence that this is so. The spores of C. botulinum are heat-resistant. They can easily survive pasteurization. And while C. botulinum will not multiply in the honey, its spores are very capable of surviving in a resting state until they reach a more welcoming environment, such as an infant’s large intestine.

The authors of the Pennsylvania State University study have suggested that honey is a better choice for relieving a child’s sore throat than commercial cough suppressant syrups. They have also - correctly - included a caution that honey should not be used for this purpose with children younger than one year. It’s far better for you and your infant to spend a few sleepless nights due to the infant’s sore throat than to risk exposing your baby to a potentially life-threatening illness.


  1. WOW! Thanks for the link.

    I had a question that I never could find an answer for when researching botulism. How is it that commercial canning facilities can process such combinations as green tomato and green olive salsa, but home canning cannot? Especially considering pasteurization is not enough to kill the botulinism toxin?


  2. Commercial canning facilities use huge pressure-cooker type containers to heat the food inside the sealed cans. They can reach and hold a higher temperature for a longer time with greater assurance than home-style pressure cookers. In theory, you can do it at home, but without the proper controls, there's no way to be sure that you got it right. I'm a microbiologist, and the only thing I would consider "preserving" at home is jam! OK, we also did kosher-style pickles, but that's a fermentation. There's enough salt, spices and acid present in the pickle jars to prevent botulism from being a problem. Heating a food that contains botulinum toxin to boiling and holding the food at a boil for several minutes is enough to destroy the toxin. The spores are the heat-resistant form of the microbe, and those need the high-pressure, high-temperature treatment. Otherwise, they might start to grow inside the can and produce toxin. BTW, even the commercial operations occasionally get it wrong. Just think about that Castleberry's chili recall a few months back. Glad you found the post useful. I hope you'll visit the blog often.


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