Monday, November 14, 2011

Honey and Food Allergies

by Kelley Lindberg

Honey seems pretty simple. I’ve never really given it much thought. Here’s the sum of what I generally think about honey: It’s a natural sweetener, it’s made by bees, and beekeepers are crazy folk who don’t mind getting stung.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a small bottle of local honey at an arts and crafts fair, thinking it would be nice to support a local farmer. That started an interesting learning experience.

As I was talking to one of the beekeepers, she told me that eating local honey can help your seasonal pollen allergies (hay fever), because the honey is made using local pollens and therefore helps desensitize you to those pollens. I thought that was sort of interesting and decided to look into that a little more.

When I got home, my friend (who was also at the craft fair) called me and told me that after I left, the same woman had told someone else that their bees spend the winter in an almond orchard. The woman also said that most of the bees in this area (Utah) winter over in almond orchards (presumably in California). My friend knows of my son’s nut allergies, so she immediately called me to tell me this.

So that sent me into research mode.

The first thing I researched is the claim is that some people seem to find relief from seasonal pollen allergies by eating a teaspoon or two of local honey every day for months before pollen season hits. (According to the beekeeper I talked to, you should eat honey made within 20 miles of your home, so that you’re sure of getting the same pollens that you’re exposed to in the air. What a great sales pitch!) The idea is that it’s a form of desensitization, sort of like allergy shots. See “Can You Fight Allergies with Local Honey?” on the Discovery Fit & Health website for more on this concept.

However, the few medical studies I located on this show no conclusive proof for this claim. So while there may be anecdotal stories saying some people find relief, it hasn’t been scientifically proven. If it works for you, great. But don’t expect a miracle. Here is an article from the New York Times about one of these scientific studies: “REALLY? Eating Local Honey Cures Allergies.”

The next thing I discovered is that people can actually be allergic to honey. Honey itself contains proteins, and you can develop an allergic reaction to anything with a protein molecule, so it is possible to develop an allergy to honey. And, like other food allergens, it can sometimes cause anaphylaxis.

Another problem with honey is that it’s made by honey bees carrying pollens back to the hive. That means pollen molecules from all those flowers can be found in the resulting honey. So if you’re having an allergic reaction after eating honey, it is nearly impossible to know if your reaction is caused by the honey itself or the pollen suspended in the honey. The website says some authors of studies recommend that allergists look at honey as a possible allergen when they can’t find another culprit causing food-allergy reactions in a patient.

What I can’t find out is if being allergic to almonds means you’re also allergic to almond flower pollen. I know that if you’re allergic to birch pollen, you might also react to almonds (along with apples, kiwi, pears, peaches, plums, coriander, fennel, parsley, celery, cherries, carrots, and hazelnuts). But the world of cross-reactivity and oral allergy syndrome is complicated. So I’m not sure if almond-allergic people can safely eat almond-grove-produced honey.

So I think the short answer is: be cautious. If you have been having allergic reactions that you can’t identify, there is a possibility, it seems, that you might be getting exposed to your allergen through honey. Honey is an ingredient in a surprisingly large number of commercial food products. If this seems to be happening to you, talk to your allergist about performing an allergy test to the honey you buy.

On the other hand, if you’ve been eating honey just fine with no problems, don’t let this article make you panic! If you’re not having symptoms after eating honey, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to assume that honey is a problem for you. So enjoy your sweet tooth.

Everyone is different, every allergy is different, and everyone’s body chemistry is different. And I’m not a doctor, of course! I just thought I’d share what I found out this week about honey. Investigate this more with your allergist if you suspect honey may be causing problems for you.


Anonymous said...

We've been using honey for a while now - the good unrefined honey. I just can't bare to part with it as it's such a good sugar. So far no reaction at all. We also use maple syrup, but haven't delved into the world of agave or stevia just yet. I'm sure that day isn't too far away.

I came across your site on the Circle of Mom's top 25 Food Allergy Mom Blogs. It's given me the idea to start a blog hop for allergies, asthma and eczema - parents or adults dealing with the condition. Please check out the page here and add a comment if you'd like to join. Thanks!


Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Thanks so much for stopping by! I will be visiting your page right away!

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