Allergy to Honey: What Exactly are You Allergic to?

Honey has become such an everyday household word that having an allergy to it sounds so unthinkable!  It makes you think twice about using natural honey as a diet and baking alternative when you’re cutting down on table sugar.  It makes you look twice at that cereal box containing honeynut cereals or that biscuit pack with honey graham crackers in it.  And what about that teaspoonful of honey a day which keeps the doctor away?  Should you skip honey-flavored cough syrups and scrap them from your health regimen all together?

Before everyone gets too paranoid about honey allergies and how they afflict you, let’s talk about what honey is and what it contains that affects you.  This could be our first, real step to understanding what an allergy to honey is and what exactly you’re allergic to!

What honey is

First of all, honey’s an all-natural sweet substance manufactured specifically by honeybees.  This substance is produced from the nectar of flowering plants.  Nectar, in turn, is a plant secretion found in the female anatomical parts of flowers.  Pollen is often brushed along with it, as bees and other insects try to access both the anther (male) and the stigma (female) in a process known as pollination.

In order to collect honey by the pound, honeybees have to be busybodies!  To and fro from their beehive, 60,000 or more of them must travel approximately 55,000 miles.  This mileage translates to about two million flowers visited and 37,000 loads in all.

So what exactly makes honey sweet in taste, golden-yellow in color, smooth in texture, and syrupy in consistency?  Scientists have discovered that this substance is a complex one composed of simple sugars (carbohydrates) along with amino acids (proteins), vitamins, minerals, and trace enzymes.   Zeroing in on sugar, it’s a combination of glucose and fructose mixed in water and oil.   In a nutshell, the lighter-colored the product is, the milder its flavor.

Ultimately, the concentration of honey significantly varies based on the kind of flower, the source of nectar, and the geographical location from which it was sourced out.  Thus, in the U.S. alone, you’d have at least 300 different kinds of honey in the market today.

What it contains

While we’re at it, let’s buzz off to these nectar-producing flowering plants.  If we were to name more contents other than the clover, these would include insect-pollinated plants like the buckwheat, sunflower, tulip, eucalyptus, and orange blossom.  Incidentally, they may also include wind-pollinated species like the willow, oak, hackberry, and other grass species.

Here’s where a bit of the problem comes in.  For instance, since willow pollen does get carried by wind, willow can be an airborne contaminant to an otherwise harmless honey consumed by a hypersensitive person.

At the same time, let’s double-back on the idea of honey being all-natural in content.  It’s a little more complicated than nectar being methodically sucked by honeybees and stored in sacs.  To collect nectar, bees basically use their mouth parts.  In the process, however, they also gather pollen from flowers by means of their legs, wings, bodies, and mouths.  Whatever they comb from their body parts gets loaded into the pollen basket located in their posterior legs and this is transported back to the beehive.

What you could be allergic to

Clearly, if you have an allergy to pollen, then you would develop an allergic reaction to some types of honey.  In this case, pollen itself is the allergen and not the honey.

Pollen gets incorporated into the honey in several ways.  For instance, it may fall into the nectar and adhere to the traveling honeybees.  It may also be deposited into the honeycomb and lodged in the hive through the worker house bees themselves.

Also, honey has the potential to be contaminated by dust in the environment or by germs from bees and plants it has come in contact with.  This happens not only during natural collection but also during commercial processing.

Natural honey does have its own germ-fighting properties, so this is rarely the case.  Any bacteria present, however, may reproduce through spores and this is what causes honey to be contaminated.  As such, infants may develop botulism when fed with honey by the mouth.

Thus, it’s quite important to verify a honey sample as to its origin or geographical source.  These days, people speculate that the closer the honey originates from where you locally live, the better its immune-boosting effect on you.

At any rate, whether homemade or commercially-produced, each brand of honey must be correctly labeled before it is even marketed to the public.  All the more, it has to conform to this regulation if it’s going to be imported or traded abroad.  Then and only then would you, as an informed consumer, know exactly whether it’s a type of honey product you’d be allergic to.


Bauer L, Kohlich A, Hirschwehr R et al. Food allergy to honey: pollen or bee products? Characterization of allergenic proteins in honey by means of immunoblotting.

One comment

  1. People with corn or sulfite allergies have a hard time finding safe honey. Beekeepers often feed their bees corn syrup. And some honey is adulterated with added corn syrup. Especially honey that comes from China. I’m allergic to corn and sulfites, and have had bad reactions to honey. It’s best to find local beekeepers and ask them how their honey is produced, if you want to avoid tainted or adulterated honey.

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