Honey is known for its incredibly long shelf life. It’s even been found unspoiled in Ancient Egyptian tombs. So does honey actually go bad? The short answer is yes, even 100% raw honey will eventually spoil. However, when stored properly, raw honey can last a very long time.
How Long Does Raw Honey Last?
The shelf life of raw honey depends on several factors:
- Storage temperature – cool temperatures prolong shelf life
- Moisture content – drier honey lasts longer
- Processing method – raw honey lasts longer than filtered or pasteurized
- Container – sealed containers prevent moisture loss
Under ideal conditions, raw honey can last indefinitely. However, most circumstances are less than ideal. On average, raw honey lasts 2-3 years when stored properly. After this, changes in texture, crystallization, flavor, and aroma can occur.
How to Tell if Raw Honey Has Gone Bad
Here are signs that indicate your raw honey has spoiled:
Change in Texture
Fresh raw honey is smooth and viscous. It flows slowly and has a thick, syrupy texture. As it starts to spoil, the texture changes:
- It becomes watery or thin
- It starts crystallizing with a grainy or sugary texture
- It becomes foamy or bubbly
These texture changes occur as components in the honey break down over time. The water content increases as moisture is absorbed from the air. Sugars recrystallize and separate from the liquid. Fermentation causes foaming and bubbles.
Change in Color
The natural color of raw honey ranges from light golden to dark amber depending on floral source. As it spoils, the color often changes:
- It darkens significantly to a reddish or brown color
- It lightens and becomes almost clear in appearance
- White spots or streaks appear from crystallization
These changes occur from chemical and enzymatic reactions that take place over time. Exposure to heat and light also speed up the color change. Darkening is most common, but sometimes enzymes break down pigments leading to a lighter color.
Raw honey has a low moisture content which prevents microbial growth. But over time, the water activity can increase to a point where fermentation occurs. Signs of fermentation include:
- Bubbles or foam appear
- An alcohol smell
- Increased acidity
- Gas production when the container is opened
Yeasts are usually responsible for honey fermentation. They can work slowly to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Proper moisture control during processing and storage can prevent fermentation.
Loss of Aroma and Flavor
Fresh raw honey has a distinctive, complex aroma and flavor profile. As it spoils, these subtle nuances fade:
- The aroma becomes flat or missing
- The flavor loses depth and vibrancy
- It takes on a chemical flavor
- Burned, bitter, or metallic flavors develop
Enzymatic activity and oxidation degrade the delicate volatile compounds responsible for honey’s aroma. The loss of these key components alters the flavor dramatically.
What About Crystallization?
Many people mistakenly believe crystallization means honey has spoiled. This is NOT true. Crystallization is a natural process where the glucose sugars in honey separate from the water:
- Glucose molecules join together in clusters
- These clusters form solid crystals that precipitate out of the liquid
- The honey takes on a coarse, grainy, or crunchy texture
All honey will eventually crystallize with time. Raw, unfiltered honey crystallizes faster than processed varieties. Cool temperatures also accelerate the process. But crystallization alone does NOT mean the honey is spoiled.
Is Crystallized Honey Still Good?
Yes! Crystallized honey is still safe to eat. The crystallization process does not affect nutritional value or quality. You can:
- Scoop out chunks of crystallized honey and enjoy it
- Use it in recipes – crystallized honey works well in baked goods
- Liquefy it by gently heating to 140°F (do not boil)
As long as it shows none of the signs of being spoiled mentioned earlier, crystallized honey is perfectly fine for consumption.
What About Storage Temperature?
Proper storage temperature is key for maximizing the shelf life of raw honey. Here are some guidelines:
Room Temperature Storage
Storing raw honey at room temperature (68-77°F) is fine for short periods under 1 year. The warmer temperatures will hasten crystallization and darkening over time.
For long term storage of 1-2 years or more, it’s best to keep raw honey refrigerated. Temperatures of 35-50°F will delay crystallization and help retain color and flavor. Place the honey jar towards the back, not in the door.
Raw honey can also be frozen indefinitely. This stops the minor enzymatic activity that causes deterioration. Thaw frozen honey in the refrigerator before use. Freezing can speed up granulation upon thawing.
Avoid storing raw honey in the pantry long-term. The warmer, variable temperatures and potential for temperature abuse will shorten its shelf life considerably.
Tips for Extending Shelf Life
Here are some tips for getting the longest shelf life out of your raw honey:
- Choose raw honey – raw honey maintains more nutrients, enzymes, and antioxidants than filtered varieties
- Buy from local beekeepers – support your local apiculture and get the freshest honey
- Avoid added ingredients – ingredients like flavorings or sweeteners reduce honey’s shelf life
- Check moisture content – drier honey below 18% moisture content lasts longer
- Store in air-tight containers – prevents moisture absorption which can cause fermentation
- Keep away from heat and light – prevents accelerated enzymatic reactions and oxidation
- Refrigerate after opening – keeps enzymes dormant and delays crystallization
What About Expiration Dates?
You may see “best by” dates stamped on the labels of commercial raw honey. But honey itself does not have an expiration date or go bad in the way milk or meat does. These dates indicate expected quality based on normal storage conditions and loss of freshness. Raw honey can maintain good eating quality long after the “best by” date.
Is Spoiled Honey Dangerous?
Honey is unlikely to harbor dangerous levels of bacteria or microbes, even when spoiled. It’s low water activity and acidic pH make it inhospitable for microbial growth. However, honey contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores can cause botulism poisoning. Infants under 1 year old should not eat honey due to the risk of botulism.
For anyone else, spoiled honey does not pose a serious health risk in most cases. However, it will have undesirable effects on the texture, taste, and aroma.
How to Store Raw Honey
Follow these simple guidelines for storing raw honey properly:
- Store in a tightly sealed glass or food-grade plastic container
- Keep in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry away from heat and light
- Refrigerate after opening for best quality
- Freeze for long term storage of 2-3 years or longer
- Keep the container upright to prevent leakage
- Check periodically – if signs of spoilage, discard the honey
Signs Your Honey Has Gone Bad
Be on the lookout for these indications that your raw honey has spoiled:
- Significant color change – much lighter or darker than normal
- Cloudy appearance or white film on the surface
- Foam, froth, or bubbles in the honey
- Thin, watery texture – no longer thick and viscous
- Grainy texture from crystallization
- Hardened texture, the honey is a solid mass
- Missing floral aroma
- Fermented smell – like wine or vinegar
- Sour or rotten smell
- Loss of sweetness
- Unpleasant bitterness
- Soapy, metallic, or chemical taste
What to Do With Spoiled Raw Honey
If your raw honey shows signs of spoilage, here are some options:
1. Throw it out
If the honey tastes bad or is unappealing, the easiest option is to discard it. Placing the container in a sealed bag first will prevent messy drips.
2. Use in cooking
You can use spoiled raw honey in baked goods like cakes, cookies, or muffins. The cooking process and other added ingredients help mask the loss of freshness. Avoid using it in delicate foods like drizzles or glazes.
3. Give to bees
Local beekeepers may accept donations of bad honey to feed their bees. Bees filter and digest the honey, so imperfections in taste or texture don’t matter.
4. Compost it
Smaller amounts of spoiled honey can be added directly to a compost pile or bin. Ensure proper aeration and moisture to aid decomposition.
5. Trash pick up
For larger amounts, dispose of the spoiled honey in your normal household waste bin. The honey will biodegrade in a landfill environment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does raw honey expire?
Raw honey does not have an expiration date. Because of its acidic pH and low moisture content, it does not readily spoil like some foods. Properly stored raw honey can last 2-3 years or longer before experiencing quality loss.
Can old honey make you sick?
In most cases, spoiled raw honey will not make you sick. It can harbor small amounts of harmful bacteria like botulism or E. coli once it’s degraded. But foodborne illness is extremely rare. The biggest risk is to infants less than 1 year old.
Why did my honey turn brown?
Darkening of honey over time is caused by chemical changes like oxidation and the Maillard reaction. Enzymatic activity also leads to loss of pigments. Exposure to high temperatures and sunlight speeds up this browning. But it does not necessarily mean the honey has spoiled.
Why is my honey grainy?
A grainy or crystallized texture results when glucose sugars in the honey separate from the water molecules. This is a natural process and not a sign of spoilage. You can liquefy crystallized honey by heating it gently to re-dissolve the sugar crystals.
Can you use crystallized honey?
Yes, crystallized honey is perfectly safe to eat. The texture is the only thing affected – the honey has not spoiled. Crystallized honey works well in many baked goods. You can also liquefy it by heating or enjoy it as is.
The Shelf Life of Raw Honey
When stored properly, raw honey can remain fresh and edible for many years. Follow these guidelines for maximum shelf life:
- Store in an airtight container at room temperature or cooler
- Keep away from direct light and heat sources like stoves
- Refrigerate after opening to prolong freshness
- Freeze for long-term storage of 2+ years
- Keep an eye on crystallization, color changes, aroma loss and other signs of spoilage
With proper precautions, raw honey can retain its delicious flavor and smooth texture for several years past any “best by” date. Allowing it to sporadically heat up will shorten its shelf life considerably.
While raw honey can last indefinitely, it can eventually go bad. Signs of spoilage include changes in aroma, texture, appearance and flavor. Crystallization does not mean the honey has gone bad. Under ideal storage conditions, raw honey will maintain quality and fresh eating for 2-3 years or more. Refrigeration and freezing help prolong its shelf life significantly. With proper care, raw honey can be enjoyed long after any “best by” date.