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Honey: The sticky story about an ‘eternal’ food

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Around the time of Moses, when Rome was just pasture land, a lowly Egyptian worker filled some jars with honey, sealed them tight and stored them in a pharaoh’s burial chamber.

Three thousand years later, an archeologist opened that tomb and found the honey, still edible.

That’s a story repeated many times in publications as august as Smithsonian, but reliable evidence of an actual archeological find just can’t be confirmed.

It’s true, however, that honey has remarkable staying power. It can definitely remain edible for dozens of years, maybe hundreds, theoretically even thousands.

Experts say the key to its preservation would be an unbroken seal. That probably would require a pyramid to protect it over three millennia of weather, war, building, and vandalism.

The reason why honey has such a long shelf life is that, like cane sugar, it contains very little water, explains Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at University of California, Davis. Bacteria and microorganisms, Harris says, can’t survive in such a setting.

Add to that, honey is very acidic; another reason bacteria can’t grow inside.

The very bees who collect nectar and burp up honey also contribute to its shelf-stable qualities. An enzyme in their stomachs mixes with nectar from flowers and breaks it down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, another inhibitor to bacterial growth.

Because of its chemistry and low-water nature, honey can be used to seal wounds and burns, serving as a barrier against infection. Sumerian clay tablets from 1900 BC list honey for these medicinal uses.

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