TIL honey actually does last forever

Is honey’s shelf life as long as people say it is?

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honeycombs with honey
Photo: Sergei Malgavko\TASS (Getty Images)

I’ve long heard that honey has an indefinite shelf life. But, I’ve always taken that fact somewhat skeptically. Sure, some food can last for a mighty long time, but indefinitely? That always seemed a little suspect to me. But this piece from Smithsonian Magazine has put my skepticism to rest: honey does in fact, have an extraordinary shelf life.

Let’s start with why honey is so unique. One thing to remember is its water content. Sure, it’s liquid, but when it comes down to it, there’s not much actual moisture in honey. Low moisture environments are an enemy to bacteria.

Amina Harris, who’s the executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at Univeristy of California, Davis, says, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.”

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In order for honey to go bad, it needs to have something inside it to go bad. Since honey’s essentially a desert for bacteria, good luck, bad microorganisms. If that weren’t hard enough for the little guys, it’s also naturally acidic, which also discourages the growth of stuff that’ll ruin your honey.

Harris says, “It has a pH that falls between 3 and 4.5, approximately, and that acid will kill off almost anything that wants to grow there.” But that’s not all. 

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Bees also have a lot to do with why honey has such a long shelf life. Before it becomes honey, it’s nectar from flowers (as most of you probably know), which does have a lot of moisture in it. As bees flap their wings, it eventually gets rid of a significant amount of water content. And an enzyme in bees’ stomachs, glucose oxidase, mixes with the nectar before it’s regurgitated by the little guys, breaking it into multiple byproducts, one of which is hydrogen peroxide. Yes, the same compound you use to clean out a wound.

Harris says, “Hydrogen peroxide is the next thing that goes into work against all these other bad things that could possibly grow.” That’s why ancient cultures used to use it for medicinal purposes. You could dress an injury in honey and nothing would grow on it, making it like a natural liquid bandage. I’ll have to remember that for when I run out of bandages at home.

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So don’t forget to keep your honey’s lid on tight, and it really will stay good for nearly forever. There’s so many good things to do with it, too, like making honey-fermented garlic or your own hot honey. But whatever you do, don’t eat an extreme amount of it.