Why will honey never spoil?

Honey has long been prized for its sweet taste, versatility in cooking and baking, and nutritional value. But perhaps honey’s most remarkable quality is its seemingly indefinite shelf life. Unlike almost every other food on earth, honey simply does not spoil – ever. As long as it’s properly sealed and stored, honey’s vital nutrients, flavors, aromas, colors, and textures remain nearly unchanged for centuries or even millennia.

So why doesn’t honey ever spoil? The short answer is that honey contains natural chemicals that inhibit microbial growth along with enzymes that fight oxidation. But let’s explore the details behind honey’s extraordinary shelf life.

Honey’s Low Moisture Content Prevents Microbial Growth

Microbial growth requires available water, so foods with very low moisture content can stay shelf-stable for a long time. Dried goods like flour, dried beans, and jerky rely on this principle. Honey fits into this category, with a moisture content of around 17%. Since bacteria and fungi require more moisture to proliferate, honey does not provide a viable environment for them to thrive.

Honey Generates Hydrogen Peroxide Which Inhibits Microbes

The nectar collected by bees contains an enzyme called glucose oxidase. When the nectar is converted into honey by honeybees, this enzyme gets diluted into the honey. Here’s where things get interesting. The enzyme slowly breaks down over time and interacts with components of honey to produce hydrogen peroxide – yes, the same mild antiseptic you might put on cuts.

This hydrogen peroxide is generated at low levels and very gradually, such that it does not affect the honey’s flavor. But the hydrogen peroxide does create an inhospitable environment for bacteria and yeasts by oxidizing their cell membranes. So hydrogen peroxide born out of honey itself acts as an antimicrobial barrier keeping spoilage microorganisms at bay.

Honey is Naturally Acidic, Which Discourages Microbial Growth

The natural acidity of honey plays a role in preventing microbial proliferation too. Honey’s pH averages around 4 on the pH scale, which is mildly acidic. Most microorganisms grow best in neutral pH environments of around 7. The acidic pH of honey helps deny spoilage bacteria and fungi of the ideal conditions they seek. So honey’s intrinsic acidity makes it a less hospitable terrain for contamination by microorganisms.

Honey Contains Phytochemical Factors That Inhibit Certain Bacteria

In addition to hydrogen peroxide and acidity, honey contains an array of phytochemicals or plant-based compounds that exhibit antimicrobial properties. These include polyphenols, flavonoids, terpenes, benzyl alcohol, and lysozyme. Some of these phytochemicals work synergistically to inhibit specific bacteria. For example, honey’s polyphenols and lysozyme are particularly adept at impeding Gram-positive bacteria such as Micrococcus luteus and Staphylococcus aureus. So altogether, honey’s naturally occurring phytochemicals serve as microbial deterrents.

The Antimicrobial Bee Defensin-1 Protein is Present in Honey

Researchers have isolated a bee-derived protein called bee defensin-1 in honey which also demonstrates antimicrobial activities. This peptide protein is synthesized by honeybees and integrated into honey. Bee defensin-1 has been shown to inhibit outright growth of certain bacteria and fungi. So this innate protein is another contributor to honey’s long shelf life.

High Sugar Content Preserves Honey

Honey is characteristically sweet due to its very high sugar content. It is comprised of roughly 70-80% various sugars primarily fructose and glucose. This high sugar concentration results in low water activity. With scarcely any water available in the thick sugary syrup, no microbial growth can occur. Furthermore, this hypersaturated sugar state keeps honey’s water activity below the thresholds required for fungi, molds, and yeasts to develop. The prevalent sugars also support honey’s hygroscopic nature, binding water molecules so they cannot facilitate microbial proliferation.

Honey Lacks Nutrients Needed for Microbial Growth

For any organism including spoilage microbes to thrive, they need nutrients like proteins, vitamins, minerals etc. But honey is nutritionally deficient relative to other foods. Its chief components are simple sugars without proteins, fiber, fat, vitamins or minerals. So even if spoilage organisms got into honey, they would not have the nutrients needed to flourish. The nutritional desert of honey simply does not support microbial expansion.

Bees Add Enzymes to Honey That Fight Oxidation

Raw honey contains enzymes secreted by bees that boost honey’s antioxidant power. Glucose oxidase and catalase are the two main antioxidant enzymes infused into honey by bees. These enzymes are scientifically proven to counter oxidation and free radicals that might otherwise cause honey to deteriorate over time. So bees essentially equip honey with its own built-in armor against the oxidative processes that lead to spoilage.

Honey’s Antioxidants Protect Against Oxidation

In addition to antioxidant enzymes from bees, honey contains various chemical compounds that function as antioxidants. These include polyphenols, carotenoids, amino acids, and flavonoids among others. The diverse antioxidants in honey scavenge free radicals that can damage molecules through oxidation. This antioxidant activity staves off oxidation and rancidity over time. So honey’s rich antioxidant content preserves it against oxidative spoilage.

Antioxidant Compound Function
Polyphenols Neutralize free radicals
Carotenoids Neutralize singlet oxygen
Amino acids Chelating metal ions
Flavonoids Scavenge free radicals

Honey’s Dark Pigments Protect Against Oxidation

The color pigments imparted to honey by plant pollen and nectar also boost its antioxidant status. Darker varieties of honey owe their deeper color to higher levels of oxidized polyphenols. These oxidized polyphenols such as caffeic acid function as efficient antioxidants, donating electrons to neutralize free radicals before they can damage honey. So the darker the honey varietal, the greater protection it has against oxidation.

Absence of Water Prevents Reactions That Degrade Honey

Water is the universal solvent in which chemicals mix and react. With such sparse moisture, honey provides limited opportunity for the chemical reactions that can degrade food over time. Maillard browning, the breakdown of vitamins, and the interaction of lipids with oxygen all require ample water to proceed. So honey’s ultra-low moisture content effectively forestalls chemical reactions that would undercut its quality.

Honey Can Absorb Moisture, But Cannot Be Diluted by It

Due to its hygroscopic properties, honey can condense water vapor directly from the air. But oddly, the reverse does not happen – honey does not readily dissolve into water. So even if honey absorbs some moisture, it maintains its viscous state and will not become diluted. Consequently, the moisture-loving microbes that might spoil honey cannot penetrate or gain a foothold into the syrupy matrix of honey.

The Beeswax Seal Locks Out Contaminants

Bees produce beeswax to seal honey into honeycomb cells. This wax seal forms an impenetrable barrier against dust, air, moisture, mold, yeasts, and other external contaminants. As long as this propolis seal remains intact on honey jars or comb, the honey inside remains untainted. The beeswax blockade provides a literal line of defense protecting honey from the agents of decay.

Honey Can Inhibit Rooting of Some Fruits/Vegetables

Honey’s antimicrobial properties are so reliable that it can exclude the growth of yeasts and molds responsible for quick spoilage of some refrigerated produce. Applying a light honey glaze to surfaces of fruits or vegetables prone to early spoiling (berries, stone fruits, etc.) allows honey’s phytochemicals to suppress microbial colonization before it takes hold.

Gamma Radiation can Sterilize Honey

Research shows that low-level gamma radiation (approved for foods) can further sterilize honey and destroy any lingering microbes. Gamma-irradiated honey retains its antioxidant power and other attributes. So gamma radiation provides a fail-safe method to eliminate microbes and extend honey’s shelf life even longer. However, non-irradiated honey already has indestructible longevity if properly handled.

Honey Keeps Indefinitely in Its Raw State

As long as honey is unheated, unpasteurized, and unprocessed, its raw state preserves all the natural components that prevent spoilage innately. Raw honey lasts indefinitely thanks to its diverse antibacterial factors, antioxidants, low moisture content, enzymatic activity, and viscosity. Processing or heat-treating honey essentially kills the enzymes and beneficial phytochemicals that endow honey with its eternal shelf life.

Pasteurization Reduces Honey’s Antimicrobial Strength

Many honeys on supermarket shelves have been pasteurized by brief heating to high temperatures. Pasteurization destroys yeast cells and pathogens. However it also deactivates honey’s glucose oxidase enzyme and diminishes antibacterial phytochemicals. So while pasteurized honey may resist some microbial growth, it has reduced ability to prevent spoilage compared to raw honey. Nonetheless, due to its other inherent attributes, even pasteurized honey enjoys a long shelf life.

Honey Can Partially Crystallize But Remains Preserved

Raw honey – particularly varieties high in glucose – tends to naturally crystallize into a thick, opaque state over time. This crystallization process does not indicate spoilage. The honey can be liquified again by gentle heating. Crystallized honey has simply transitioned from an amorphous viscous state into a stable granular state. But its innate preservation properties all remain intact through crystallization. So crystallized honey maintains its everlasting qualities.

Adulterated Honey Can Spoil

Honey marketed as “pure” is sometimes adulterated with syrups like high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, etc. Adulterating agents reduce the weight fraction of honey’s natural antimicrobial components and antioxidants. With its protective factors diluted by adulterants, honey loses some of its innate longevity. So adulterated honey is more vulnerable to fermentation and spoilage over time compared to pure, unadulterated honey.


Due to its unique combination of chemical, physical, and environmental properties, honey is naturally endowed with age-defying staying power. It is perhaps the only food in existence that resists decay forever when uncontaminated and stored properly. So next time you find a stash of honey in your pantry from years past, don’t be afraid to enjoy a taste of history! Given honey’s eternally shelf-stable nature, it is no wonder why honey was so prized in ancient traditions around the world.

Leave a Comment