Honey is a natural sweetener that many parents assume is a better option for their child's diet than other added sugars. But did you know that honey can actually contain something called clostridium botulinum spores? And that the spores can cause a rare, but serious, illness?
What Are Clostridium Botulinum Spores?
C. botulinum spores are a harmful bacteria that can produce the botulinum toxin. This dangerous toxin can cause a rare but serious condition called botulism. The botulinum bacteria are often found in things like soil, but liquid sweeteners like honey can contain them as well. (Ref)
When we normally talk about botulism in adults, we're talking about the toxin which causes foodborne botulism, a type of food poisoning, and not usually the botulinum spores.
The toxin is usually found in something like incorrectly canned foods or dented cans. Technically, you can boil these so they are safe to eat. Although I wouldn't necessarily advise that!
The botulism spores that are present in honey can generally be moved through an older child or adult's digestive tract before they take root. Which means that honey is not a risk for most of the population.
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Why Are Infants At Risk For Botulism Poisoning?
Your baby's digestive system is susceptible under one as they do not have a mature digestive system yet. The botulism spores can take root in your baby's intestines and actually produce the botulism toxin that we usually hear about.
This causes a different kind of botulism, called infant botulism. Infant botulism is characterized by the spores actually producing the toxin in a baby's intestines.
The highest risk for infant botulism is in babies under 6 months of age. But before 1 year of age, your child is still at risk and honey shouldn't be in your baby's diet at all.
What Types of Honey You Should Avoid In Your Baby's Diet
If you've heard that you should avoid honey but wondered why, now you know! It isn't about food allergies or a potential allergic reaction, or even the added sugar for babies under 1. The main reason is the risk of botulism.
The increased risk of infant botulism is present for all forms of honey. Local honey, raw honey, or even pasteurized honey!
The very nature of bacteria spores means that the bacteria are protected from harsh environments. This includes pasteurization. It also includes the heat from a normal baking or cooking environment.
The spores need an extremely high level of heat to be killed, or a combination of heat, pressure, acidity...and well you get the idea. Killing the spores is not something we will achieve with anything we buy or cook at home for our babies with honey in it.
That does mean that it is important to read ingredient labels on store bought items. Avoid bread with honey in it, things like honey graham crackers, or really anything at all with honey!
Symptoms of Botulism
Symptoms of infant botulism may be slightly different than foodborne botulism. They can include: (ref)
- poor feeding
- drooping eyelids
- pupils that are slow to react to light
- a weak cry
- trouble breathing
If you notice any of these symptoms and think your baby may have recently had honey, be sure to contact your healthcare provider immediately.
When Can Your Baby Have Honey?
Once your baby reaches 1 year of age, they can medically have honey. But many organizations and feeding experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends avoiding added sugars before the age of 2.
The biggest exception to this would be in the case of the need for cough medicine. Honey has actually been shown to be more effective than commercial cough syrup in helping with coughs.
If you find yourself wanting to use honey for a cough medicine after your baby's first birthday, be sure to check with your pediatrician for guidance.