The idea that cooking honey makes it somehow
unfit for human consumption has been around
for literally thousands of years, and it does
have a scientific basis. But just because
something has a scientific basis doesn’t necessarily
mean that it’s true. And, in fact, the available
science would seem to indicate this one probably
isn’t true. Cooking honey might deprive it
of some of its more subtle flavors, and maybe
some of its nutritional value. But cooking
honey does not make it “toxic.” And understanding
how an idea can have a scientific basis and
yet still be wrong is basic part of the scientific
literacy to which all of us non-scientists
“Honey, if heated, or taken by a person suffering
from heat becomes fatal due to its association
That’s according the Charaka Samhita, an ancient
Sanskrit text on the Indian traditional medicine
system known as Ayurveda. Scholars believe
it was first written down somewheres around
2,000 years ago — and, you know, a lot can
happen in a couple millennia. I don’t know,
maybe that was actually true back then, that
heated honey would be fatal. But, about 10
years ago, some researchers at India’s Defence
Food Research Laboratory did some experiments
to see if heated honey really is toxic — at
least, you know, nowadays.
They got a couple of different kinds of honey.
As everyone knows, honey comes in three basic
types: raw, clear and bear. That last one
was a joke. Raw honey is just taken out of
the beehive and then strained to remove any
little bits of wax and bee parts that are
in there. And that’s it.
It’s widely believed that raw honey has various
health benefits — it’s an antioxidant, it
fights infections, it’s good for your cholesterol.
But for what it’s worth, the EU’s Food Safety
Authority, among other scientific bodies,
considers those claims to be unsubstantiated
There’s also a persistent belief that eating
raw honey that was produced in your local
area can help with seasonal allergies, by
exposing you to small doses of pollen from
your local ecosystem, thereby allowing you
to become tolerant of them. This is, indeed,
a proven treatment for seasonal allergies
— but only when it’s done with precisely
formulated pharmaceutical injections — not
with rando bee puke from around the block.
You’ll note this bottle prominently says “Southeast”
on it — this is to tell me that it was made
by bees in my region of the United States.
The package designers don’t realize that I’ve
actually read the landmark 2002 study out
of the University of Connecticut which found
no link whatsoever between local honey consumption
and allergies as compared to a placebo.
It remains the position of the American College
of Allergy Asthma and Immunology that “[T]here
is no scientific proof that eating local honey
will improve seasonal allergies,” and “in
rare cases there might actually be a risk.”
A risk that somebody with a really serious
allergy could have their throat swell up and
go into anaphylactic shock if they eat the
wrong raw honey.
Just because an idea has a scientific basis
doesn’t mean it’s supported by the available
Anyway, that’s raw honey. “Normal” honey has
typically been filtered a bit more aggressively
to get rid of the slightest impurity and give
you that clear look — and it’s typically
been pasteurized to kill some of the yeasts
in there, and therefore extend shelf life.
By the way, that’ll kill the botulism bacteria,
but not its spores or the toxins — that’s
why babies aren’t supposed to have any kind
If you’ve eaten normal, mass-market clear
honey at some point in your life, you have
had cooked honey. Pasteurization = heat. You’ve
had cooked honey, and you ain’t dead yet.
But just because something isn’t acutely toxic
doesn’t mean it’s not slowly killing you over
a long time with repeated exposure. That’s
called chronic toxicity. And that’s probably
what those scientists in India were really
looking for when they did their experiments.
They took some raw honey, and some pasteurized
honey, and they subjected both to the same
battery of tests.
They heated it to 60 degrees Celsius / 140
Fahrenheit — that’s at the low end of the
temperatures at which honey might be pasteurized.
They also heated it to 140 Celsius — that’s
284 Fahrenheit. Really hot, as far as sugar
goes. And they held it there for a full two
minutes. Let’s see what honey looks, smells
and tastes like when it’s that hot for two
Now, note that I have my thermometer on Celsius,
because we’re doing science here, not cooking.
As the temperature creeps up, nothing much
happens until we near 100 degrees, otherwise
known as the boiling point of water. Honey
is about 20 percent water, and out it comes.
Oops, are we gonna need a bigger pot? No,
thankfully. Some pretty unpleasant smells
are starting come off it, and we’ve hit 140
Celsius, so T-minus 2 minutes, and mark. Oh,
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named, has a chronograph on it, for precision
timing. And indeed, two minutes is up. That
honey look and smells disgusting — which
is not the same as being poisonous, though
it sure tasted like it.
Anyway, the researchers also mixed honey with
an equal quantities of ghee — Indian-style
clarified butter. The Charaka Samhita warns:
“Do not eat food with antagonistic qualities,”
such as “equal amounts of honey and ghee.”
Yes, I made my own ghee. You boil the butter
until the water is gone and the milk solids
sink to the bottom. That’s clarified butter.
Then you let the milk solids brown, giving
a toasty flavor to all the milk fat around
it. That is ghee. You just strain it off,
leaving the solids behind to be discarded.
I’m sure that people do it lots of different
ways, but that’s the basic idea. Anyway…
The researchers also mixed heated honey with
heated ghee. Then they did a bunch of analysis
on all the resulting samples. The cooked honey
was different in lots of ways — it was less
dense, it was less acidic, it actually had
more antioxidant activity. But here’s the
big difference. The cooked honey had more
HMF — Hydroxymethylfurfural.
HMF is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction
— the browning reaction that makes food
worth eating and life worth living. In particular,
it’s formed by the dehydration of sugars that
can happen at high heat.
HMF occurs naturally in raw honeys, especially
honeys produced in very, very hot climates.
The honey literally cooks a little bit in
the hive. But certainly cooking the honey
some more results in more HMF, as these experiments
proved. And HMF has been a compound of concern
to scientists for some time, because some
in vitro experiments indicated that it might
In vitro experiments are experiments done
in like a test tube, not on a living organism,
like a lab rat or a person. Those are known
as in vivo experiments, and in vivo experiments
on HMF have been much less concerning.
A few studies where they gave big doses of
HMF to lab rats seemed to indicate a weak
carcinogenic affect in the intestinal tract,
but those findings were all-but dismissed
by these German scientists who published a
very widely-cited risk assessment of HMF in
2011. Their conclusion? “No relevance for
humans concerning carcinogenic and genotoxic
effects can be derived.” However, they did
raise concern about the concentrations of
HMF used in caramel colorings for foods.
Those scientists in India fed their ghee and
honey samples to rats for six weeks, and what
did they find? Absolutely nothing, compared
to a control group. No differences in weight
gain, no differences in their organs, bupkis.
There is a reason to believe that HMF might
be bad for you if you eat a ton of it, but
sweetening a sauce with a squeeze of honey
every now and then ain’t gonna do it.
Oh and other thing: HMF is in everything.
It’s not just honey. In particular it’s in
roasted coffee, dried fruits and — wait
for it — baked goods. There’s tons of it
You want to be worried about something vis
a vis honey, be worried about this: colony
collapse disorder. This is the global trend
in recent years of worker bees just peacing
out, leaving their queen and babies behind.
This is a phenomenon that endangers not only
your honey habit, but all the crops you eat
that honey bees pollinate, which is a lot.
These bees I’ve been showing you live on the
campus of Berry College, just north of where
I live in Georgia. They’re happy bees. They’re
looked after by Berry student Shelby Koch.
“It’s kinda funny being the beekeeper around
here. You know, you walk out of lunch after
classes, and you’re like — oh yeah, there
are my girls foraging in the holly next to
the science building, or whatever, you know?”
And they don’t just eat landscaping nectar
— they eat a varied diet of wildflowers
and clover. One theory as to what’s driving
colony collapse disorder is monoculture — bees
feeding off of these large-scale agricultural
operations with just one crop in them.
“Kinda like, you know, vegetables are great
for you, but if you only ever ate vegetables
and didn’t get any source of protein from
anything, you probably wouldn’t be doing as
well. It’s kinda the same idea with bees,
and so I’ve seen some people cite that as
But, Koch says, nobody really knows what’s
doing this. Could be a lot of things.
“Fungicides negatively impacting symbiotic
fungi within the hive. There’s large concern
over large-scale pesticide usage.”
Yeesh. Well, I’m glad she’s working on it.
I don’t really have much for you here, other
than to say that if you want to be worried
about something having to do with honey, be
worried about that, and be aware that our
choices as food consumers might be a causal
But, yeah, cook your honey, it’s fine.
All credits go to Adam Ragusea