Are you a parent wanting to instil healthy eating habits in your child and feed them well? Lots of questions come up when it comes to giving children honey or not. Here are some things to consider to help inform your parenting decisions.
Back though history and across cultures, babies were given a taste of honey after they were born. Bee Wilson writes in the book The Hive: the story of the honeybee and us, that honey was given to children for energy. In Germany it was believed that smearing honey on a child's lips was what made it fully alive. During the US Depression, honey was used by public health officials to bring undernourished infants back to good health by giving it to them on a daily basis. Giving a herbal honey-based concoction called ghutti to babies is a tradition among Asian communities.
That was then, but in 1978 honey became a concern for infants when a very rare syndrome called infant botulism was diagnosed for the first time in sick babies, when traces of botulism spores were found in their stools in California. Infant botulism (clostridium botulinum) while still nasty, is much less extreme than adult botulism and is extremely rare (in the UK, there have been only 11 confirmed cases of infant botulism in the past 30 years).
According to the World Health Organization honey should not be given to infants under the age of 12 months or added to food, water or formula. It also applies to honey in baked or processed goods. Once a toddler reaches 1 year of age, their digestive system is usually mature enough to kill any botulism germs.
The spores themselves are not harmful because they are in a dormant or inactive state. In adults, the spores do not survive the acidity of the stomach and the presence of beneficial organisms that destroy the spores. That is not so with babies. Their digestive tracts are still immature, designed only to digest their mother’s milk.
In the infant’s gut, the spores can grow into bacteria, and as they do so, they produce the toxin that causes botulism. Clostridium bacteria are very common in our environment with only a small percentage of infant botulism cases being linked to honey.
The most critical risk of contracting infant botulism is for a baby under 6 months.
The amount of botulism spores in raw honey is negligible and developed digestive systems are strong enough to cope with this. Once an infant reaches the age of 1 year or older, their intestines have matured to contain this balance of acids that help destroy and fight off any toxins that the botulism bacteria produce.
Once a child does reach 1 year of age and can eat and enjoy delicious raw honey don't overdo it. It's worth remembering that raw honey is a sweetener so can affect developing teeth.
If in doubt, check with your paediatrician before offering sweeteners as part of your child’s diet.
We are all exposed to spores causing botulism which are widespread in soil, dust and other natural environments such as pond and river sediment. A rare disturbance of the infant gut flora, is thought to allow the spores to flourish and produce toxins. For most cases of infantile botulism, the source of spores is never identified and it is assumed that they are swallowed from the environment. Honey has been proved to be a source of spores which is why it is best avoided until the child's delicate digestive system has become sufficiently robust. Other liquid sweeteners, like molasses and corn syrup, may also carry a risk for botulism.
Is commercial honey safer for babies than raw honey? Commercial honey is treated with heat, called flash pasteurisation, and often passed through micro-filters. And while it kills lots of the natural elements within the honey this is not done for health reasons but to make a smoother product and stop the honey from crystallising or going cloudy. This does not kill any botulism spores so raw honey and commercial honey are exactly the same in this respect. These process do, however, remove beneficial nutrients like pollen, enzymes and antioxidants which remain present in raw honey.
While it isn't advised to feed honey to very small babies, healthy adults are not at risk of botulism from raw honey, even during pregnancy. As mentioned earlier, commercial honey is pasteurised for appearance and consistency but this is not the same as pasteurisation in milk products and unpasteurized or raw honey doesn't carry any risk of listeria.
White sugar, is the over-processed, end-result of sugar cane stripped of all its nutrients and is now among the top three ingredients in nearly all packaged foods. Anyone who has seen a toddler on sugar will attest to the swings in mood and energy levels. With growing concerns about childhood obesity, raw honey can be used as an alternative. It has a lower GI value than sugar so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as quickly. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you need less of it, but it does have slightly more calories per teaspoon so it's wise to keep a close eye on portion sizes.
Research is still being done in this area but some sufferers of allergies have reported that taking a spoon of raw honey every day has relieved their symptoms (similar to how allergy shots work). At present there is no scientific proof that eating local raw honey will improve seasonal allergies, just anecdotal evidence. Also, some suggest it is better to try bee pollen on its own. If your child is a sufferer consult a paediatrician first and try tiny amounts to test and see how the body responds.
Always make sure you give your child raw honey, rather than treated commercial honey where heat and filters destroy the natural goodness. This way you retain the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals within it.
Cooking with children and exploring ingredients is a great way for children and parents to bond and spend some quality time together. Preparing food, baking, cooking can help your child develop motor skills in the kitchen and build a positive connection with healthy, tasty food.
Do you use raw honey in your children's diet?
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