Is It Safe to Eat Honey While Pregnant?

Pregnancy

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Many parents are aware of the fact that babies and infants under the age of 1 should not eat raw honey because it carries the risk of botulism bacteria for them. Honey contains a certain type of bacteria that can lead to botulism in infants. Under the age of 1, infants' digestive systems aren't developed enough to safely handle all of the bacteria in raw honey, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that no baby under the age of 1 should have raw honey.

However, parents may wonder if babies can't eat honey, do the same rules apply to babies who haven't yet been born? Is it safe for a pregnant woman to eat honey, or could eating honey harm her unborn baby?

Why Is Honey Dangerous?

The main risk of honey, according to the CDC, is that because it is a raw food item, it contains bacteria that can lead to botulism. Botulism is a disease that leads to paralysis in the body and it's caused by neurotoxins produced by a strain of bacterial spores called Clostridium botulinum.

Once the bacteria spores are in the body, they produce the botulinum neurotoxin, which is what is dangerous to humans and causes paralysis in the body. Botulism is caused by a bacteria that is actually present in soil and on dust, so it's around us at almost all times. It's on nearly every household surface, from carpets to counters, even after cleaning. For healthy children and adults, although, ingesting the bacteria is usually not harmful and does not lead to actually developing symptoms of the botulism disease.

Adults and children, however, are different than infants. The CDC notes that some infants are more susceptible to developing the disease after they ingest the botulism spores. Honey is known to contain some Clostridium spores, which is why it carries the risk for infants, because eating it will introduce those spores directly to the baby's digestive system.

It's not fully understood why exactly some infants develop botulism and not others, but the CDC recommends that no infants under the age of 1 eat honey to be on the safe side.

An infant's gut simply has not developed to the point of an adult's and it does not contain as many "good" bacteria to keep the bad bacteria at bay, nor does it have as many immune-function bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria. Thus, once the spores are inside a baby's digestive tract, they can more easily grow and produce the botulism toxin, which is the dangerous material that causes the symptoms.

When Is It Safe for Babies to Eat Honey?

Can Pregnant Women Eat Honey?

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future, chances are, you've probably heard a lot about the rules and restrictions on what women can eat during pregnancy.

There is the actual advice from doctors and medical experts about which foods can be the most beneficial to both mother and baby during her pregnancy, warnings about foods that can actually cause harm to the unborn child, and of course, all of those "helpful" suggestions that family, friends, and even strangers in the grocery store or coffee shop may offer.

Unfortunately, all of the advice about what to eat and what not to eat can be confusing, especially if you are a first-time mom. And even for moms who have been through pregnancy before, it can feel like the "rules" about nutrition and what is best for your baby are always changing. The good news, however, is that there is a simple answer for the question about whether or not it's safe for pregnant women to eat honey during their pregnancies.

Yes, it is safe to eat honey while you are pregnant. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not list honey in their recommended list of foods that pregnant women should avoid.

There are two main reasons why it is safe for women to eat honey while they are pregnant:

  1. A woman's digestive system can handle the bacteria. An adult's gut is more likely to be able to handle keeping any possible colonization of the Clostridium spores at bay, because the digestive microbiome has been well established by adulthood. There is more likely to be protective flora in an adult's gut which will prevent the spores from growing, thus preventing botulism from developing. More protective flora also means less space for the bacteria to grow. In this case, no room at the inn is a good thing. Most of the time, botulism just cannot grow in a healthy digestive tract. And while it is true that a woman's immune system can be lowered during pregnancy, in normal, healthy pregnancies, there is no change in the digestive flora that would lead to the risk of botulism increasing.
  2. The botulism toxin is unlikely to pass to the baby. A 2010 study in Canadian Family Physician explains that the weight of the botulinum toxin most likely makes it too heavy to pass through the placenta and reach the baby. That means that even if a woman eats honey and has the botulism spores in her own body, they will not reach the baby. As you can probably imagine, botulism is also very rare during pregnancy, so it has been difficult for doctors to accurately study the effects of the bacteria on pregnant women and their babies. However, the fact that botulism toxins cannot pass through the placenta also means that it has been reported that women who acquired botulism during their pregnancy did not have any negative effects with their baby. In the studies of pregnant women with botulism, no traces of the botulism were found in the babies.

    One Safety Note

    While honey is generally regarded as safe to eat during pregnancy, women who have any gastrointestinal abnormality or digestive disorders such as Crohn's or IBD may want to take extra precautions about eating honey during their pregnancies, and consult with their doctor about what they recommend regarding honey and any increased risk of infection.

    Any condition that involves the digestive tract or flora not functioning normally, whether that be from an immune disorder or a structural disorder, may affect the risk of botulism developing in a pregnant woman.

    You may also want to consult with your doctor if you eat a lot of honey as part of your regular diet and you have had a recent course of antibiotics, or will need antibiotic treatment in the near future. Antibiotics can impact the normal flora in the gut, making it more susceptible to infections of all kinds.

    If you decide to consume honey during your pregnancy, you also may want to be sure to purchase honey that is pasteurized and certified by a food inspector. Although raw honey is considered to be safe during pregnancy as well, it never hurts to be sure to make sure your food is from a safe and inspected source.

    It is also helpful to keep in mind that honey is still primarily comprised of sugar, so if you are watching your weight during pregnancy, have been advised by a doctor to avoid excess sugar, or have a condition such as gestational diabetes, you will want to limit your sugar sources as well.

    Are There Any Health Benefits?

    With all of this talk about honey and botulism, you may start to wonder if eating honey at all is even worth the risk. Are there any health benefits to eating honey or should you avoid it all together?

    There are actually several benefits that can be found in eating honey. Although in general, honey isn't considered to be an especially vitamin or mineral-rich food source, it is still thought to contain some nutrition benefit.

    Limited studies have found that eating honey may help with conditions such as asthma, have some benefits in helping wounds to heal, and in treating coughs and soothing sore throats. Honey can also be used as a substitute in baking to help sweeten desserts and treats with less sugar than traditional table sugar. And, let's not forget the fact that honey is delicious and can have a wide variety of flavors, based on local varieties of bees and plants.

    A Word From Verywell

    While being aware of your diet as a pregnant woman is important and ensuring proper nutrition can help supply all of the vitamins and minerals you and your baby need, there is no reason to stop eating honey during your pregnancy. You should be aware of the risk of eating raw foods during pregnancy because it can contain harmful bacteria for both you and your baby, but fortunately, raw honey does not carry the same risk.

    Honey does not pose a risk either to the pregnant woman or to her unborn baby, so if you enjoy the taste of honey in your tea, to sweeten up baking dishes, or even as an all-natural way to soothe a sore throat, you can safely indulge in honey during pregnancy. And if you do choose to enjoy the sweet taste of honey during your pregnancy, try to stick to pasteurized and certified versions, so you can be sure the honey is safe from other contaminants as well.

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    Article Sources
    • Tam, C., Erebara, A., & Einarson, A. (2010). Food-borne illnesses during pregnancy: Prevention and treatment. Canadian Family Physician56(4), 341–343.

    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Prevention: Botulism.

    • New England Journal of Medicine. Botulism in the pregnant woman; 335:823-824. September 12, 1996. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199609123351117.

    • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Nutrition during pregnancy. 2018, Feb.