Is Australian honey poisonous?

In devastating news for anyone who likes a hot buttered crumpet, a new study has found that Australian honey has the highest concentrations of a natural toxin in the world – and more worryingly, local regulations say that’s just fine.

The ABC reports that the study found our honey contains levels of toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which are known to cause liver damage in humans, and are suspected to lead to cancer when consumed in high doses.

Researchers have gone so far as to advise that pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers avoid Australian honey.

The problem is wide-spread, with 41 out of 59 Australian honeys tested showing on average four times more PAs than European honeys.

PAs are poisons produced by as many as 600 plants in Australia that are there to protect the plant from insects. One of the most familiar of these is Patterson’s Curse. Bees drink the nectar from the flowers and the toxins get into the honey.

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Under Australian regulations, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) allows honey to be sourced from these plants, as long as it’s mixed with other honey to dilute it, Science Alert reports.

“Removing source plants is not feasible for many areas where apiaries are kept,” said a FSANZ spokesperson. “Contaminants should be kept as low as achievable, therefore blending is the most practical way of reducing the levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.”

Nonetheless, researchers from the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, revealed that the average daily exposure to Australian honey consumers was 0.051 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight for adults, and 0.204 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight for children.

The Australian limit according to FSANZ is 1 microgram per kilogram of bodyweight, which is 140 times higher than the European standard. Under European standards, this would mean a tea spoon of honey could push you over the limit, whereas at home you could happily eat up to 15.

According to The Age, FSANZ recently acknowledged international research that suggested its daily tolerable intake limits “should be reduced”. However, on Thursday FSANZ’s website was updated to include a statement that said Australian honeys had different types of PAs that were less dangerous than their European equivalents’ concentrations, and cautioned against connecting PA levels directly to illness or cancer risk.

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University of Adelaide medicine senior lecturer Ian Musgrave said European guidelines were more stringent largely because of more conservative estimates of cancer risk.
He said PAs had been shown to cause cancer in rats, but the risk was more indirect in people. The most recent research, however, also showed a potential cancer risk existed in human cells.

Australian bee experts have questioned the study, saying the results are exaggerated and based on outdated samples. However, experts agree that, where possible, consumers should avoid honey made from areas with lots of Patterson’s Curse.

“There is unlikely to be a significant human health risk from consuming normal amounts of Australian honey,” said Andrew Bartholomaeus from the University of Canberra, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Those consuming high levels of honey may wish to seek honey produced from other plants.”

Does this new study about Australian honey worry you? How much honey do you get through?