Both producing and eating honey are enjoyable, but consuming anything raw can be a scary endeavor if you aren’t appropriately educated. Because raw honey contains live microorganisms, it can be dangerous if not handled correctly – so is fermented honey safe to eat?
Generally, fermented honey can be safe to consume but this depends on certain signs of fermentation, such as taste, smell and appearance.
What is Fermentation?
Many standard food products are fermented, including beer, wine, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, and many other foods. These foods contain one or multiple microorganisms that cause the product to “ferment.”
The microorganism in these food products is called yeast. Yeast is a single-celled organism that feeds off the sugars in honey and converts them into carbon dioxide and alcohol or acid. This process (called fermentation) is regulated to produce high-quality alcohol in the common foods mentioned above.
However, fermentation can also naturally occur in food products when high moisture and high sugar content are present. Yeast naturally occurs in honey because of its presence in flowers. Since honey is made of glucose, fructose, and water, fermentation occurs naturally.
Luckily for beekeepers, fermentation only occurs in conditions that allow the yeast to thrive. Preventing these conditions will limit fermentation and produce a honey product that is sellable to consumers and sweet in taste.
Is Fermented Honey Safe to Eat?
Like other fermented foods, honey is generally safe to eat. The difference between these foods and honey is that, unlike the regulated process those foods go through, fermented honey is usually accidental and not a regulated process.
Because it’s not regulated, fermented honey may contain other microorganisms that aren’t safe for human consumption. If your honey does ferment, it’s important to check for other sources of contamination to deem it safe for human consumption.
In addition, while fermented honey might be safe, it might not be as tasty as its sweet counterpart. Since fermented honey is primarily an acidic form of the sugars in honey, it’s much more sour and bitter in taste.
Signs of Fermentation
Whether you want to make fermented honey intentionally or not, knowing the signs of fermentation is helpful.
As mentioned above, fermented honey tastes much sourer than regular honey. Similar to the taste of other fermented foods like wine and vinegar, it has a sharp, sour taste.
Because of its acidity, fermented honey smells similar to wine. While you can probably notice this smell in the early stages of fermentation, it will be hard to ignore once the honey is completely fermented.
Likely, the first thing you’ll notice if your honey is fermenting is the bubbles beginning to appear. Because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide, fermented honey will have bubbles. These bubbles will add a pronounced foam layer on the top of the honey as the carbon dioxide escapes the jar.
How to Prevent Fermentation
If you don’t plan on making fermented honey, there are sure ways to prevent it from happening. You and your customers will need to follow guidelines to stop the yeast from activating and reproducing.
Lower Water Content
High water content is what allows the yeast in honey to reproduce. Lowering the water content in your honey stops the yeast from reproducing and thus prevents your honey from becoming fermented.
One way to do this is by letting your bees cap the honey before harvesting. Bees put a wax coating over honey once it reaches a specific moisture content to prevent this from happening to them, so it will likely be safe once it’s in the capped state.
If your bees haven’t capped the honey and have moved on to another super, you can always check the moisture content by using a refractometer. USDA guidelines state that honey should be below 20 percent to be considered standard, and the highest quality honey should have less than 18.6 percent moisture content.
Store in Low Temperatures
Like other microorganisms, yeast is only active at certain temperatures. Honey kept below 52F causes yeast to go into their inactive form, stopping them from reproducing at all.
Of course, once the honey is consumed and in the body, it will go into its active form. While a little active yeast can benefit the common person, too much yeast can cause infections and other health problems.
On the opposite spectrum, heating honey up to a specific temperature can kill any yeast spores present in the honey. This process is called “pasteurization” and kills any microorganisms in the honey. While pasteurized honey is a good option for people with compromised immune systems, the elderly, and babies, it does remove the beneficial properties present in honey’s raw form.
To pasteurize the honey, heat it to 145F for 30 minutes, killing all yeast spores. However, the heating process can change the flavor and texture of honey, so it’s usually a more complex process involving commercial machinery.
What to Do With Fermented Honey?
If your honey has fermented, no need to throw it out. There are many tasty options for fermented honey.
- Use it in food. Certain foods like yogurts, cereals, oatmeals, fruits, and smoothies are excellent with fermented honey. Because of its sharp taste, it often balances out the sweetness of the fruit. In addition, many people put it in lemonade as a less-sweet alternative to sugar.
- Make fermented honey garlic. This combination is the most popular option for fermented honey because of its sweet-garlicky taste and immune-boosting properties.
- Ferment it with other foods. Putting sweet foods with the honey, like apples, dried apricots, berries, dates & figs, mango, peaches, or plums, will create a sugary, thick dish. Putting fermented honey with savory foods, like ginger, garlic, jalapenos, or onions, will make a great mixture for marinades, sauces, and dressings.
- Commercially-fermented honey is called “mead” and tastes somewhere between a beer and a wine. Making mead that isn’t sour in taste can be complex with already-fermented honey as the fermentation process is not as controlled. However, it’s not impossible.
Fermentation is a naturally-occurring process in honey with high moisture content. While not inherently dangerous, fermented honey can be sharp and unpleasant in taste. While there are obvious signs of fermented honey, there are also easy ways to prevent it, including:
- Lowering the water content
- Storing it below 52F
- Heating it at 145F for 30 minutes
However, if your honey does become fermented, hope is not lost. There are easy ways to turn fermented honey into a delicious dish using common ingredients like garlic, cereals, or fruits.