Does Cooking Honey Make it Toxic?

by Sarah Healthy LivingComments: 36

cooking honey in a saucepan

Switching to honey from refined sweeteners is a common first step for many who seek to improve their diet and overall health. This would include baking and cooking honey for recipes used in the home.

Certainly, honey is a most traditional superfood that is praised in ancient texts and a component of numerous traditional diets from around the world. Modern science has verified the health benefits of consuming honey as it contains vitamins, minerals, probiotics (Lactobacillus kunkeei), enzymes, antioxidants, and some amino acids.

Honey in its raw state is also helpful used on the skin and as medicine due to its potent anti-microbial properties that make it useful as a natural antibiotic.

Those who use honey generally seem to understand that it is best to seek it in an unheated (raw) state to obtain maximum benefits. However, what most do not know is that cooking honey or baking with it – even simply adding honey to hot liquids causes negative chemical changes to this ancient food. In fact, consuming honey that has been heated or cooked in any manner actually can contribute to ill health particularly of the digestive system.

Cooking With Honey in Traditional Indian Culture

Honey is regarded as essential medicine and food in Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of traditional diet and holistic healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. Tibetan medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine both have their roots in Ayurveda. In addition, early Greek medicine embraced many concepts originally described in the classical Ayurvedic medical texts dating back thousands of years.

In Ayurveda, honey is considered an important food for health of the heart and the eyes. It is also considered the only natural sweetener appropriate for those trying to lose weight because it warms the body (i.e., stimulates metabolism) rather than cooling it like other natural sweeteners. Along these lines, a popular and recommended weight loss tonic for those who follow an Ayurvedic diet is a small amount of raw honey in a cup of warm (not hot) water first thing in the morning to stimulate strong metabolism for the day.

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 or above 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.

In addition, Ayurvedic dietary principles warn that consuming honey that has been cooked, baked or added to hot liquids contributes to ill health over time. The reason is because honey that is cooked becomes like glue. The molecules then tend to adhere to mucous membranes in the digestive tract producing toxins, called ama. The literal meaning of ama is undigested food or toxins stuck within the digestive tract. It is considered to be the root cause of most ill health in Ayurveda with heated honey one of the most difficult forms to detoxify.

Charaka, the ancient sage of Ayurveda, wrote over 500 years ago that “nothing is so troublesome as ama caused by the improper intake of honey.”  (1) 

Dr. Krishna, an Ayurvedic practitioner for over two decades explains further that even raw honey should not be mixed with hot or spicy foods as this will by default make it “hot”. In addition, he advises against using raw honey in a hot environment where you are already warm and possibly overheated (2).

At this point, we’ve established that the ancient system of Ayurveda considers uncooked honey to be nectar and cooked honey as poison. But, what does modern science have to say on the subject?

Heated Honey in Scientific Research

Science confirms that heating or cooking honey does indeed damage it, thereby eliminating many of its beneficial effects. This is alarming given that the vast majority of honey available in the grocery store has already been heated whether or not you decide to cook with it at home!

The most obvious change to heated honey is a loss of enzymes and probiotics. Research puts the temperature at which damage occurs higher than Ayurveda. Rather than the Ayurvedic limit of 104°F/ 40°C, heating honey to 118°F/ 48°C or above is the point at which negative chemical changes begin to occur. Foods heated above this critical temperature, even if only for a very brief period, are said to be cooked, or more aptly put — dead.

You can test this for yourself very easily if you are so inclined (be very careful!). Heat a pot of water on the stove to 117°F/ 47°C and notice how you can stick your finger in it without burning yourself. The liquid is very hot, but not burning. Beware if you heat the water just a degree higher to 118°F/ 48°C, however, as it is now at a temperature that will burn your finger very quickly if you attempt to touch it.

Formal research on the physicochemical characteristics and chemical constituents of cooking honey and honey mixed with ghee was published in the Journal of Research in Ayurveda in 2010. Further, the scientists 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 researchers discovered that the specific gravity of samples showed a significant decrease in honey and ghee samples heated to 284°F/ 140°C which is on the low end for an average cooking temperature. In addition, the pH and ash value of honey heated to 284°F/ 140°C was elevated.

Most problematic, a significant rise in hydroxymethyl furfuraldehyde (HMF) occurred at only 140°F/ 60ºC in the heated honey samples. The negative effects were more pronounced when the heated honey was mixed with ghee leading the study authors to conclude that the increase in HMF “may produce deleterious effects and act as a poison in due course” (3).

The good news is that feeding rats the mixture of heated and raw honey mixed with ghee for 6 weeks showed no significant change in the food intake, weight gain and relative organ weights. Other research, however, suggests the potential toxicity and carcinogenicity of HMF in humans, although at the present time, not enough research on the subject exists to definitively link intake of this chemical with ill health (4) .

Cooked Honey Fed to Bees is Deadly

In my view, the most telling evidence that we should think twice before cooking honey or consuming it after it has been heated comes from beekeepers themselves. It is known that honey is the winter food for bees, so consumption of it within the hive is a normal and natural occurrence in nature. However, beekeepers who have heated raw honey and then given it back to their bees as food have observed that this practice can be deadly.

The most prominent example of this comes from P. J. Chandler, a pioneer of natural and sustainable beekeeping. He writes that bees fed heated honey perish (5).  This is likely due to the increase in HMF that occurs when honey is heated, as this chemical is toxic to bees.

A similar pattern emerges when calves are fed pasteurized rather than raw milk. They end up sickly, underdeveloped and suffer from organ damage. In some cases, the calves die before reaching adulthood. This startling study by one farmer in Canada includes pictures and is very compelling.

It appears, then, that the “land flowing with milk and honey” written about in the Bible was most definitely raw!

Is Cooking Honey a Healthy Practice?

In summary, is cooking honey a good idea? Probably not given the preponderance of evidence both ancestrally, scientifically and anecdotally from beekeepers themselves that cooked honey is an entirely different food than when it is in a raw state. Clearly, more study on the subject is needed, but for now, it appears wise to select another natural sweetener for your cooking and baking efforts at home.

For those on the GAPS diet who can only use natural sweeteners without disacharrides which leaves very few options, organic date syrup is likely the best choice as date sugar in granular form does not dissolve easily when cooked or baked into recipes.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

 

Sources and More Information

How to Find the Best Local Honey for Health

The 11 Best Natural Antibiotics and How to Use Them

Therapeutic Uses of Honey in Ayurveda

Studies on the physicochemical characteristics of heated honey

Lactobacillus kunkeei YB38 from honeybee products enhances IgA production in healthy adults

Honey: Ayurvedic Nectar

Dietary exposure to 5-hydroxymethylfurfural

Comments (36)

  • Kristie Hoskins

    Hi Sara. Thank you for this article. Just when I think I’m figuring things out on this healthy journey I get thrown a curveball. Knowledge is power though and it’s truly one step at a time. My question is, what about coconut nectar? Is this a good alternative? Thank you.

    June 18th, 2016 11:36 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Coconut nectar is fine. I would also recommend trying yacon syrup.

      June 18th, 2016 12:23 pm Reply
  • Diane

    Is fermented honey safe to eat? Is honey heated to make mead?

    March 20th, 2016 9:37 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      No, honey is not heated to make mead which is supposed to be unpasteurized and very much alive with enzymes and probiotics. Fermented honey as in Jun tea and other traditional drinks is fine.

      March 21st, 2016 7:27 am Reply
  • Pete

    Isn’t traditional Halvah made with honey cooked to soft ball temps

    March 19th, 2016 5:35 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Some recipes call for honey, but it is supposed to be made with sugar. Recipes that call for honey are trying to make it seem healthier, but in fact, it is not when you cook the honey.

      March 20th, 2016 9:49 am Reply
  • Jen

    Thanks so much for this article!
    So, I just want to be sure – ONLY HONEY turns bad when heated, right? Not other sweeteners?

    February 2nd, 2016 2:25 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Correct. This article is about honey only.

      February 2nd, 2016 5:27 pm Reply
  • Anton

    Remember honey packs on the weight just the same as refined white sugar does, no difference. So it should not be used instead of white sugar in the hope you will lose weight. You won’t.

    January 31st, 2016 6:01 am Reply
  • Dianna

    What about honey that has crystallized? I have a gallon that I bought from a local bee keeper but haven’t been able to use it up as quickly as I thought. I’ve always heard that you should heat it to turn it back to liquid. Is there a safe way to do this?

    January 30th, 2016 7:45 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Gently warming crystalized honey will return it to a liquid state (keep the temperature at 117F or lower). You don’t have to heat it to high temperatures.

      January 31st, 2016 8:59 am Reply
  • frances

    Hi there. Now I must remember when I make my Flue Cough Meds for a sore throat or my Ginger Tea I must NOT use boiling water and add the honey a little later when the liquid has cooled slightly. I can do that. I use Maple Syrup in my Ginger Biscuits which I melt in the microwave with the butter before adding it to the recipe. Best ever.
    Thanks for a great blog.
    Frances from Sunny South Africa

    January 30th, 2016 9:37 am Reply
    • Rhonda

      Would love to have your ginger biscuit recipe

      January 31st, 2016 2:52 pm Reply
  • Gary Clearwater

    Sarah. thank you for sharing your knowledge. I have been heating coconut milk then adding honey turmeric, ginger cinnamon nutmeg coconut oil and a little black pepper into a ninja blender every night before bed. Pretty sure the milk was too hot when I mixed it. Thank you so much. I will follow you from now on. Good info.

    January 9th, 2016 5:41 pm Reply
  • Baklava

    So in addition to making Baklava with homemade phyllo dough…. honey needs to be raw on top.

    NOTED.

    Thank you for an awesome blog.

    January 1st, 2016 8:36 am Reply
  • Reader

    I kept wondering why bread made with honey it didn’t seem to taste right…. since I love honey.

    Sarah I can’t thank you enough for creating this blog. It has quite literally saved us from so many problems!
    Please please please consider creating a giant reference book with all your blog posts rolled into one for posterity. I don’t know what I’d do without this blog.

    January 1st, 2016 8:31 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Thank you so much for your kind words!

      January 1st, 2016 9:08 am Reply
  • mel

    How do you feel about organic coconut sugar? I use that in my coffee and baking.

    December 31st, 2015 2:48 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Coconut sugar is wonderful! I use it too. It’s not good for those on the GAPS diet though as it contains some sucrose which is a disaccharide.

      December 31st, 2015 8:18 am Reply
  • J

    This is how you get orthorexia.

    December 30th, 2015 2:30 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Haha! Actually, it’s awesome learning about how traditional cultures did things. They had thousands of years of experience before we lost all that knowledge in just a generation or two of factory processed food!

      December 30th, 2015 4:47 pm Reply
  • Michelle Rose

    I love reading articles like this! So enlightening! On the other hand, it is very disappointing to learn that honey in my tea could be making me sick. I knew the nutritional value was compromised by heating it, but I did not know it could actually become toxic. :-( What sweetener do you suggest for baking or sweetening hot drinks? I am also trying to lose weight, so that is another issue for me. Thank you in advance.

    December 30th, 2015 1:56 pm Reply
    • Sarah

      Michelle … just keep your tea at 117F or under and you will be fine. 117F is hotter than you might think. Think of how hot a jacuzzi is when you sit in it and it is only about 105F!

      December 30th, 2015 4:47 pm Reply
  • Theresa

    A timely article! We’ve been doing GAPS and I was carmelizing honey in the frying pan to put on squash pancakes. Now I see that is not a good idea…thanks so much!!

    December 30th, 2015 11:16 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Try using date syrup Theresa .. its GAPS friendly and nice and sweet :)

      December 30th, 2015 11:54 am Reply
  • Ray

    Used the rest of my white sugar in my coffee about a year ago. Switched to putting raw honey in my coffee… apparently, that’s not good either. sigh

    December 30th, 2015 10:29 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Ray .. it’s fine if the coffee is warm but not hot. If you can drink it without burning your tongue, then you are doing great :)

      December 30th, 2015 11:12 am Reply
      • Susie

        Most coffee and tea is made just shy of boiling, around 200-210F, which is well above the Ayurvedic limit. I’ve never actually measured the temp, but my guess is that most people drink hot drinks much above 118F. I know that my mouth can tolerate temps far above what my finger can.

        December 30th, 2015 2:50 pm Reply
        • Sarah

          You make the coffee and tea … let it cool to a drinkable temp and then put in the raw honey. Believe it or not, 117F is plenty hot to drink and still preserves all the goodies and keeps the baddies from forming :) Use a candy thermometer and measure it .. you will be surprised.

          December 30th, 2015 4:45 pm Reply
  • Kristen Stone

    Is molasses okay to be cooked or heated?

    December 30th, 2015 10:28 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Yes, it’s fine because molasses is cooked to begin with during processing and molasses is different than honey chemically speaking.

      December 30th, 2015 11:13 am Reply
  • Kathy Nagorny

    I have a recipe for Gingersnap cookie that calls for heating the honey and cooking it for five minutes to brown it. I’m wondering if I skip that step and just add the raw honey to the recipe will it still go bad when the cookies are cooked at 350 degrees for 8 minutes. Your article leads me to believe that honey should in no way be heated. Do you agree that even baking foods made with honey will make the honey go bad once it’s heated in the oven? Thank you.

    December 30th, 2015 10:28 am Reply
    • Sarah

      Unfortunately, baking with honey will trigger the problems described in the article as well. Perhaps you can substitute another sweetener like maple syrup or yacon syrup? Coconut syrup is good too although not as sweet.

      December 30th, 2015 11:14 am Reply
  • Diane

    Sarah, I am a GAPS Practitioner…what are your suggestions for another ‘safe sweetener’?

    December 30th, 2015 10:17 am Reply
    • Sarah

      For GAPS, it’s tricky because you need a sweetener that does not contain disaccharides. This would leave date sugar as the most reliable alternative for cooking (unfortunately, date sugar does not dissolve easily though :( or simply fruit in its whole form. Date syrup would be another good option … this one looks good to me and it’s organic (1 ingredient .. organic dates): http://amzn.to/1TpDISy

      December 30th, 2015 11:15 am Reply
      • Sophie Hawkins

        Hello Sarah,
        Thanks for all your great contributions to our health! Excellent article too! I just posted a link to it on another blog.

        I make a syrup from jaggery which is either date or coconut palm sugar, depending on the type. Amazon sells an organic brand. I am able to buy this at our local IndoAsian Food Store.

        May 16th, 2016 11:04 am Reply

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