Raw honey has a lot in common with other foods. It’s chock full of nutrients and antioxidants, it’s a tasty addition to your favorite dishes, and it comes in fun packaging. But one thing raw honey doesn’t have in common with other foods is its longevity.
If you’re shopping for honey at your local grocery store, you might pick up a jar of pure honey that has an expiration or ‘best by’ date printed on the container. Raw honey, however, typically won’t have any expiration date on its container. This isn’t because one will expire and the other won’t – it’s simply that you’re more likely to see an expiration date printed on commercially produced honey. This practice is common for most commercially produced food items. Raw honey, on the other hand, is typically produced and processed by smaller and more localized beekeepers/honey farms.
As it turns out, neither type of honey will expire if properly stored. While this article is focused on raw honey, as long as your honey is ‘pure’ it shouldn’t expire. Neither raw honey nor pure honey, by definition, should have any additives. For more information on honey terminology and types of honey check out our ultimate guide to honey.
Honey and Folklore
Surprisingly, honey has been used in folk tales and magic practices for ages. Modern Hoodoo witches are rumored to use honey to sweeten a person’s feelings toward them. In ancient Hindu texts, honey is listed as 1 of 5 immortality elixirs. It’s a fitting description, given that honey is probably as close to immortal as anything we’ve seen.
So, how long does raw honey last? Well, in late 2015, scientists found 3,000-year-old honey in the Egyptian pyramids. To their surprise, it was still perfectly edible. Many people are leery about eating foods that are 3 days old. You’d be forgiven for refusing to eat something that’s 3,000 years old. However, raw honey will always be edible, regardless of how long it has been stored. Raw honey is especially susceptible to crystallization, though (more on this below).
The Science Behind Honey’s Longevity
The question here is simple—does raw honey go bad? The answer, no, seems simple enough. But there’s plenty of science behind honey’s everlasting freshness.
Honey is made of sugar. In the science world, sugar is considered hygroscopic, meaning it contains almost no water. However, it can take in moisture from its surroundings when it’s unsealed. For food to expire, bacteria and microorganisms need a moist environment in which they can thrive and duplicate, eventually spoiling the food. Honey is the worst possible environment for bacteria, as the lack of moisture suffocates it.
Furthermore, honey is an acidic food, with a pH level that can reach down to about 4.0. Most bacteria has a hard time surviving in an environment this acidic. Thus, honey lasts for ages because its natural composition helps keep harmful bacteria and other organisms at bay.
But there’s more.
Though it might be hard to believe in the Hoodoo witches’ application of honey, there seems to be a slight element of magic at work in the bees that produce it. They use their wings to dry water from the nectar. Then, when bees regurgitate that same nectar, it’s loaded with glucose oxidase, an enzyme that lines their stomachs. This enzyme breaks down to gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. The latter part is a major antibacterial force in honey that contributes to the bacteria-unfriendly environment.
Honey’s chemical makeup also lumps it into a small class of non-Newtonian liquids, or in layman’s terms, liquids that change their behavior under stress. For example, despite being a liquid, it seems to have an infinite dribble—just another fascinating aspect of nature’s sweetener.
So, we’ve established that raw honey doesn’t go bad, and there’s tons of scientific proof to back up that claim. However, this theory hits a slight snag once your honey has been sitting in the back of the cabinet for a few months. At some point, you might notice your bottle is filled with crystallized honey—a worrisome appearance that leads many people to throw it out. If you see this, don’t toss it. Your honey hasn’t expired. There’s just more science at work.
Store-bought honey will probably never crystallize because it has been processed to remove any particulates (like pollen). Without anything suspended in the highly viscous liquid, it’s much more difficult for the crystallization process to begin. However, raw honey doesn’t go through this extreme refinement process, which gives it its allergy-fighting properties and rich flavor. Thus, some particulates like pollen and different enzymes remain, and crystallization happens much faster.
Temperature also plays a role here. If you store your raw honey in a space where the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the cooler temps will likely cause your honey to begin to crystallize. This can be reversed by heating it up (although we don’t recommend heating raw honey above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to maintain optimal nutritional content).
And lastly, glucose can also cause crystallization. Raw honey’s sugar is made up of fructose and glucose. However, these two sugars are present in different quantities in every bottle of honey. If there’s more glucose present, honey is more likely to crystallize.
Regardless of the cause, it’s important to know that crystallized honey isn’t bad. It has simply shifted shape a bit. In fact, many people prefer the texture of partially or fully crystallized honey to liquid honey. Others believe that crystallized honey makes for a more easily spreadable sweetener than liquid honey.
Does Raw Honey Go Bad?
Still not convinced? Consider this. There is one circumstance in which honey can go bad—if you leave it unsealed for an extended period of time. Remember, honey is hygroscopic. Though it’s naturally dry, it can suck in moisture from the external environment. With more moisture present, bacteria and microorganisms have a fighting chance. However, if you keep the lid closed, you’ve got nothing to worry about. After all, the honey in the Egyptian pyramids lasted for thousands of years.
In fact, honey’s antibacterial properties, and seemingly eternal shelf life, have made it a go-to medicinal treatment for centuries upon centuries. 8,000 years ago, honey was used to treat wounds and gut diseases. Ayurvedic health experts used it to soothe bad coughs and maintain healthy teeth and gums. The Egyptians used it to embalm the dead. In ancient Greece, honey was the answer to everything from baldness to scarring. And 1,000 years ago, Islamic medicine used it to treat diarrhea.
Each of these uses leaned heavily both on its antibacterial strength, and on its long shelf life. If honey went bad, it never would have become a preferred treatment method for so many cultures and afflictions.
In conclusion, raw honey is one of the only foods in the world that doesn’t expire. Other foods that seem to last indefinitely – ghee, soy sauce, and, yes, Twinkies, have less expansive healing capabilities. But raw honey emerges as a true superfood—one that lasts for ages, without question, and that can offer so many nutritional and medicinal benefits. The next time you feel tempted to toss an old jar of honey in the garbage, think twice. It’s highly unlikely that it has spoiled.