I am always shocked by what the internet “gurus” spread around as truth. Recently, I came across a post that suggested honey was dangerous to give to dogs and cats.
If you’ve heard that honey is toxic for pets, I’d like to correct that information here. It isn’t. (You can read more about it here.)
I scratched my head for a bit, trying to figure out where this particular rumor started. I believe it is rooted in a concern over botulism.
Now that we’ve settle the pets and honey debate, let’s examine the popular notion, “Why can’t babies eat honey?”
Why Can’t Babies Eat Honey?
Honey is not recommended for children under the age of one, though some are now stretching that out to age two. As this is really the only possible problem with honey it seems logical to start here.
What is botulism?
Botulism, Clostridium botulinum, is a group of bacteria that tends to hang out in the soil. When our pets or grazing animals get sick, it is most often due to rotting meat and spoiled plant materials like hay or grain.
As with many bacterial organisms, the bacterium on its own isn’t really the problem. When C. botulinum gets somewhere where there is a lack of oxygen, it starts growing. This is where the problem starts. When C. botulinum grows it sheds a toxin that is potentially deadly but also readily treated.
How do humans get botulism?
Human opportunities for infection with botulism tend to come from improperly handled food. This is the main reason why canning is such a science and needs to be done properly. Once you’ve sealed up your favorite beef chili recipe, you’ve removed access to oxygen. If you didn’t can it at a high enough temperature to kill off bacteria and there happens to be a botulism spore on something, it will grow. The toxin then fills your chili and when you eat the toxin (again, not the bacteria) you’re in trouble.
Botulism, the syndrome characterized by ingestion of the toxin, is a progressive paralysis of the nervous system causing unfortunate things in the worst cases such as an inability to breathe on one’s own.
In the case of honey, C. botulinum could potentially become a contaminant, but won’t grow. Honey is anti-bacterial, so any spores it contains will be inactive. In the adult human, or non-infant dog or cat, the average digestive system is developed enough that if a spore were to be eaten it would be destroyed before it had a chance to grow and cause problems.
Babies and Honey
In the case of an infant, the digestive tract has not developed enough to kill the spore. So, if they were to eat food with inactive C. botulinum, those spores could colonize inside the intestinal tract where there is low oxygen and reproduce to shed deadly toxin.
Botulism is incredibly rare in dogs and fairly rare in humans, accounting for only 0.1 in every million people in the years from 1990-2000. A few extra facts:
1. I have not found any definitive link between infant botulism and honey. Studies have shown that in only 15% of the cases reported was there any documented history of honey use in the home.
2. In a study to determine the prevalence of C. botulinum in honey, 25% of samples contained spores.
3. A child’s digestive tract actually develops enough to kill C. botulinum at 6 months of age.
So… Why Can’t Babies Eat Honey? Or Can They?
So why can’t babies eat honey, or can they? Well, it seems reasonable to say that some honey could be improperly handled, causing botulism contamination. But it is important to understand that this does not mean that all honey is inherently dirty or a risk.
It would have been more helpful in the 70’s when they did these studies if they had looked at the sources for the 25% of samples that had spores. Is it possible that they were simply processed in dirty facilities or mishandled in packaging? We can’t know – instead we have a blanket prohibition based on a very small sample size that only suggests a minute correlation.
What I did with My Children
I fed my toddlers the honey.
Would I give them anything imported or from someone I didn’t trust to process honey correctly, NO!
Perhaps there is more room for common sense than we thought.