Honey is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. It is a natural sweetener that provides a healthy dose of minerals and vitamins.
But, for babies? Honey is off-limits until they are three years old because it can cause infant botulism, a rare but serious illness that affects the nervous system and can be fatal.
Infant botulism is caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The spores of this bacteria can be found in soil and dust and can contaminate honey, corn syrup, and other products that contain sugar. The most common symptoms of infant botulism are constipation, weak muscles, poor sucking, and breathing trouble. Infants under 1 year old should not eat honey because their immune system is not developed enough to fight off the bacteria spores in honey.
The spores from honey can't be seen with the naked eye and they grow in an environment low in oxygen, such as inside a baby's tummy or in a sealed jar of honey sitting on the shelf for too long. As the bacteria grows, it forms toxins that can paralyze muscles and cause breathing problems. Infants are vulnerable to this disease because their digestive systems are not mature enough to break down the toxin produced by the bacteria.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the incidence of infant botulism is low—less than one in 100,000 infants are affected - babies under 1 year old should not eat raw or unpasteurized honey because it may contain Clostridium botulinum spores. Honey that has been pasteurized or processed in some other way is safe for babies over 1 year old as long as they are not allergic to it.
Clostridium botulinum spores that may be in honey are harmless to adults and honey is safe for children over the age of three years old.