Does Honey Expire?
Natural honey can change color and crystallize—but does it ever expire? Here's the scoop.
Alongside jewels and wine, ancient Egyptians buried jars of honey inside the tombs of royalty, in the hopes that it would sweeten their passage into the afterlife. Amazingly, when the tombs were uncovered 3,000 years later, the excavated honey was perfectly preserved and still completely edible. Hungry archaeologists immediately slathered it onto their bread.
OK, that last part isn’t true—but the rest of the story absolutely is, as unlikely as it sounds.
So, does honey expire? How about modern honey? Here’s the scoop.
Can Honey Ever Expire?
Technically, all types of natural honey cannot expire because honey doesn’t spoil on its own. (More on why below.)
Honey can and will, however, change. It can change color from pale to dark. It can start clear and become cloudy. And, most peskily, its texture can change from smooth and thin to thick and grainy in a process called crystallization. Thankfully, though, none of these changes make the honey bad or unsafe to eat!
There is an important exception to this rule. If honey is exposed to moisture, it can ferment and spoil, which will be immediately obvious: smelly, sour, moldy and utterly unappetizing.
Does It Make a Difference if Honey Is Raw, Pure, Honeycomb, Infused or Pasteurized?
Less-processed honeys, like raw and honeycomb, will be more apt to darken or crystallize. Many stores sell pasteurized honey, which is honey treated with heat. Treated honeys stay pourable and clear for longer, but the treatment may remove some of the natural antioxidants and health benefits found in less-processed honey.
Watch out for supermarket honeys that dilute pure honey with added stuff, like corn syrup. While they’ll stay good a while, they’re not nearly as good for you.
Why Does Honey Have Expiration Dates?
Plenty of foods don’t need expiration dates, honey included. Stores use them largely to ensure that their stock is fresh. Obviously, they want to sell honey before it shows signs of aging. If your honey’s expiration date is approaching, it’s still safe unless it’s obviously fermented.
Can I Eat Dark or Crystallized Honey?
Yes, both are safe to eat. You can easily restore crystallized honey to a pourable state by placing the uncapped jar in a double boiler or directly into a pan of warm (not boiling) water. Every few minutes, remove the honey and stir it. Be careful to use a clean utensil, and don’t let water drip into the container. Microwaving honey isn’t recommended, as it’s difficult to heat evenly and easy to overheat, which may destroy nutrients.
Why Does Honey Never Go Bad?
Honey is inherently hostile to microbes and bacteria. Honey is a very low-moisture sugar with an acidic pH, yielding an environment in which bacteria literally cannot thrive. Other foods share this description—think molasses—and keep a long time, but not indefinitely. What makes honey so special? The answer is both gross and fascinating, so consider skipping ahead if you’re squeamish.
As it turns out, honey lasts so long because bees “process” it: they swallow nectar and regurgitate it into combs to make honey. (Yum!) An enzyme in their stomachs breaks the nectar down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Does the latter sound familiar? A natural antiseptic, it’s literally sold in drugstores to treat all manner of wounds and maladies. In other words, on top of its natural resistance to bacteria, honey’s hydrogen peroxide repels any microorganism with the temerity to trespass.
This amazing chemical makeup is also why honey has been used for medicinal purposes (like ointments, and to treat burns and wounds) for thousands of years, including by those ancient Egyptians who buried honey in tombs.
How to Store Honey
Store honey tightly covered to keep out air and moisture. The ideal location is cool and out of the sun, probably another reason the tomb honey remained so pristine. In your own home, however, a pantry shelf will work just fine.