honey in a cup with a spoon and bees crawling in

Is honey toxic when cooked? Every once in a while I have a commenter pops up  telling me that honey is toxic when cooked. The thought is that honey changes form with heating (this part is true) and that then it is toxic.

GAPS Diet and Heating Honey

I haven’t really given this assertion a second thought since Dr. Natasha briefly addressed this in the FAQ section of her website (here)

“I generally do not recommend baking with honey, I recommend using dried fruit as a sweetener in baking. Yes, I agree that natural good quality honey is “alive”, that is why I recommend buying unpasteurised, untreated honey, straight from the bees and collected in ecologically clean areas. However, in some recipes honey works quite well. From my clinical experience and the experience of Elaine Gottschall there have never been any “toxic” reactions.”

We do encourage the use of date paste as an alternative to honey in most baked goods in the GAPS diet. This is more due to flavor and cost than concerns about honey becoming toxic. Dates are a nice mild-tasting fruit that sweetens our muffins quite well.

Get the Recipe for Date Paste

In any case, we can look into the theory that honey becomes toxic a little more.

Where did the idea come from that honey is toxic when cooked?

Honey has long been a natural super food, used in both food and as medicine in ancient cultures through today.  When it is in its raw unprocessed state, it contains enzymes, pollen, and vitamins and minerals as well as fructose.

Honey is used to treat a variety of maladies:

  • It has been shown to lessen coughs and improve sleep in children who have coughs (source)
  • It is used to treat seasonal allergies (source) but a placebo-controlled study showed that this may not be effective (source)
  • It is used to help burns and wounds heal when applied topically (source)
  • It has antiinflammatory properties (source)
  • It helps improve memory in menopausal women (source)

Honey and Botulism

Honey comes with some warnings. It is not advised for children under the age of 1, due to the minor risk of botulism spores, even in pasteurized and/or cooked honey (source). That said, the risk is also present for corn syrup yet the advice to avoid corn syrup in infants isn’t as well spread as the advice to avoid honey (source).

Honey’s toxicity when heated

In alternative circles, there is an assertion that honey becomes toxic when heated.  Certainly, the enzymes present in raw honey are killed with high heat, just like they are killed in fresh fruits and vegetables when they are cooked. But this would not make it toxic.

The idea that honey becomes toxic when heated over 140 (or 104 – I’ve seen both numbers) degrees F comes from Ayurvedic wisdom.  It is said that heating honey will cause “Ama” or undigested matter in the body, which is thought to be the root of disease.  This idea would tie into the wisdom that all disease begins in the gut.

disease begins in the gut

More about Ayurvedic wisdom, honey, and Ama

The best way to make a truly informed decision is to look with an open mind at both sides of the argument before deciding.  There are many Ayurvedic recommendations for food, based on your constitution, you can see more here (pdf).

Sarah at The Healthy Home Economist talks about honey and Ayurvedic philosophy here:

While Ayurveda recognizes the many dietary and holistic benefits of honey, the dietary principles of this ancient system of health also strongly advise against heating it for any reason. The reasons are both practical and health-related.

First, Ayurveda claims that heating honey to 104°F/ 40°C orabove causes a negative chemical change that causes it to become bitter. This makes it undesirable to use from a culinary perspective in comparison with other natural sweeteners like unrefined cane sugar or fruit. (continue reading)

Scientific Studies

There is also a study that studies the properties of cooked honey on its own, and when mixed with ghee, when fed to rats (source)

There was a significant rise in hydroxymethyl furfuraldehyde (HMF) in 60º and 140°C heated honey samples. The browning and total antioxidant of honey mixed ghee samples was significantly higher when compared to ghee samples. Further, the authors have also evaluated the effects of consumption of heated honey, ghee, honey mixed with equal amount of ghee and heated honey mixed with heated ghee in rats. The feeding of heated honey and honey mixed with ghee for 6 weeks showed no significant change in the food intake, weight gain and relative organ weights. The study revealed that the heated honey mixed with ghee produces HMF which may cause deleterious effects.

What is  hydroxymethyl furfuraldehyde (HMF)?

Seeing the chemical names of compounds makes them sound scarier than they often are.  So let’s take a look at this compound that is found by heating honey.

“HMF is practically absent in fresh food, but it is naturally generated in sugar-containing food during heat-treatments like drying or cooking. Along with many other flavor- and color-related substances, HMF is formed in the Maillard reaction as well as during caramelization. In these foods it is also slowly generated during storage. Acid conditions favour generation of HMF.  HMF is a well known component of baked goods. Upon toasting bread, the amount increases from 14.8 (5 min.) to 2024.8 mg/kg (60 min)” (source)

It appears that HMF is caused by heating sweeteners, both honey and other carbohydrate sources such as dried fruit, and corn syrup.

HMF is toxic to honey bees, which is why corn syrup being fed to honeybees can cause problems (source) and it is is also found in coffee (source).

Should we avoid honey in cooked recipes?

Unless we are following other dietary recommendations from the Ayurvedic wisdom, there is not good reason to avoid honey unless we are also avoiding all other heated carbohydrates and coffee.

That said, I wouldn’t say that heated honey is a ‘health giving’ food, but rather something that should be used in moderation.  In my home, I keep both a jar of raw honey and conventional cooked honey from Costco. I don’t use the more expensive, healthier raw honey in cooked recipes such as Breakfast Cookies, candied walnuts, or egg white frosting.

I also use fruit to sweeten when possible.  Raw honey is wonderful to add to anything that will not be heated to more than 110 degrees.  I use it in popsicles, smoothies, and in salad dressings.

Find raw honey here

The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet allows honey in cooking due to it containing primarily fructose, which is digested higher up in the digestive system and allows us to still have sweets, while also not feeding the pathogenic bacteria lower in the digestive tract.

Some people following GAPS and other healing diets find that they feel much better and have better healing while avoiding all carbohydrates, I wonder if the HMF present in cooked foods may be part of the reason why a low carbohydrate diet works for some people.

I’m sure three is a lot more to this, and I welcome your observations and comments :)

(image credit)