While excavating ancient tombs in Egypt’s pyramids, archaeologists found pots of honey. This ancient honey dates back to almost 3,000 years ago. They say that honey never expires, but this honey is really old. Throughout history, honey has been used for a variety of reasons. The ancient Egyptians used it as a gift for the gods, as medicines, preservatives and as an ingredient in embalming fluids. In the modern age, we use it as a sweetener. Honey has many properties which contribute to its shelf life of, well, forever.
Honey is a sugar
As a sugar, the chemical make-up of honey is hygroscopic, which basically means it contains very little water in its natural state. However, honey can suck in moisture if left unsealed. Amina Harris, the executive director of the Honey and Pollination Centre at the Robert Mondavi Institute at University of California explains, “Honey in its natural form is very low in moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” Microorganisms cannot survive long enough in a jar of honey to spoil it. Honey also has a low pH, between 3 and 4.5, meaning that it is acidic enough to kill almost anything that wants to grow there.
Bees are magic
Bees first collect nectar, which contains 60–80 per cent water. Interestingly, as the bees make honey they flap their wings, which literally dries out the nectar! On top of that, the nectar that bees consume mixes with an enzyme called glucose oxidase, which is present in their stomach. When bees vomit nectar from their mouths into combs to make honey, the enzyme mixes with it and breaks it down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Harris continues, “hydrogen peroxide is the next thing that goes to work against all these other bad things that could possibly grow.”
This explains the medicinal use of honey throughout time: it is thick, inhibits the growth of microorganisms, sucks moisture out and simultaneously releases small amounts of hydrogen peroxide to promote healing—a natural band aid! And what do you know, a company called Derma Sciences has made MEDIHONEY, bandages covered in honey used in hospitals.
Have you ever wondered why some honey goes hard or crystallises into what seems to be a big lump of sugar? Well, the liquid-y honey you buy from the supermarket has been heated and processed so it contains no particulates (very small particles); which means there’s nothing in the liquid for molecules to crystallise—it could stay like that forever. But raw/organic honey from ‘smaller’ places may contain particulates (including pollen and enzymes), which may cause the honey to crystallise. If you notice your honey has crystallised, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that it’s gone bad. Just heat it up!
It is important to note that the correct storage of honey is crucial for its eternal shelf life. If you leave honey out unsealed and exposed to the environment it will spoil. To last forever it needs to have a good seal on the container to keep out any moisture.
But, back to whether or not you should eat 3000-year-old honey…The archaeologists that found the ancient honey in the Egyptian tomb happened to sample a bit and it was perfectly edible! Honey really is a superfood, which is why we need to do what we can to support our local beekeepers and protect the declining bee population.
Check out this nifty little map to find where your local Aussie supply is: