Using Honey to Fight E. coli Bacteria
E. coli infections are once again in the news. In the latest outbreak in Germany, a new strain of especially virulent E. coli has killed several people and caused severe illness in 1,500 more. Doctors quickly learned that using antibiotics actually increased tissue damage rather than preventing it, and many of those infected with this bacterium face an especially difficult road to recovery.
E. coli infections most commonly cause diarrhea, which itself can be fatal in the very young, the very old, and those who have long-term health issues. But E. coli can also cause:
- Meningitis in babies
- Pneumonia when the bacterium is breathed in, usually by people who have E. coli infections of the bladder or urinary tract
- Inflammation of the bile duct when E. coli grow on the surfaces of gallstones
- Hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which shuts down the kidneys by flooding them with proteins broken down from red blood cells.
The stories this week focus on Spanish cucumbers, which turned out not to be the source of the infections, and German bean sprouts, which did. If you don't live in Germany or Denmark, you probably are not in any danger of exposure to this latest and most dangerous bacterial bug. But this is not the first time people have been killed by food-borne E. coli, and it won't be the last. The statistics on E. coli infections just in the United States are staggering.
Just How Common is Food-Borne Illness?
The US Centers for Disease Control keep records on various kinds of illnesses affecting Americans. Nearly one in four Americans is affected by a food-borne illness every year. The CDC state that just in the USA, every year:
- 76 million people develop a food-borne illness.
- 325,000 people have to be hospitalized for a food-borne illness.
- 5,000 people die from a food-borne illness.
Every year, more people die from spoiled food than were killed in on 9/11. More people are hospitalized for food-borne infections than are hospitalized for car crashes. And nearly as many people come down with E. coli, botulism, or Salmonella infections as get hay fever. But how many people actually get E. coli?
The CDC says that only about 120,000 people a year in the USA actually get E. coli infections. When they do get E. coli, most of them get the O157:H7 strain.
We also hear a lot about botulism, but there are only about 60 cases a year. There are over 1,000,000 cases of Salmonella a year, and over 2,000,000 cases of Camplyobacter. There are about 4,000,000 cases of rotavirus and 4,000,000 cases of astrovirus and over 25,000,000 cases of Norwalk virus.
Viruses don't survive outside the body as long as bacteria, so they tend to be directly transmitted from one infected person to others. Somebody who has a viral infection doesn't wash after going to the toilet and then prepares food. The problem is not at the farm or at the packing plant or at the store. It's in the kitchen. If you don't want to get a viral foodborne illness, the main thing is to make sure food preparation is sanitary. Viral illnesses tend to be milder, because the virus needs the host to survive long enough to infect someone else.
Bacteria do survive outside the human body, sometimes for decades. Bacteria don't need their human host to survive for very long periods of time. If you are seeking to avoid bacterial infections, you need to focus on the food itself, rather than just on the cleanliness of preparation.
Even without any cleansers or natural health products, cleanliness goes a long way. But products like honey also help. I'll explain that in a moment. And a little further down in this post I'll tell you more things you can do to protect your family and yourself from all kinds of foodborne pathogens. But first let me tell you about honey.
Honey as an Infection Fighter
There have been about 600 scientific studies of honey as an infection-fighter reported in the medical literature. I've taken the time to read about 100 of them. The important thing to know from the research is that both raw honey and pasteurized honey can kill a wide range of infection-causing bacteria when they are in direct contact with the disease-causing microorganisms, and that diluted honey actually works better than "straight" honey.
- A "medicinal grade" honey called Revamil killed about 99% of antibiotic-resistant E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Enterococcus faecium, and Burkholderia cepacia, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) after two hours contact and about 99.99% in 24 hours.
- In the laboratory, both Manuka honey and the Chilean honey called Ulmo 90 kill E. coli and Pseudomonas, although Ulmo 90 is kills MRSA faster.
- Malaysian tualang honey kills the same microorganisms as Manuka honey, but it is more effective for a few, uncommon strains of staph and strep.
I could go on and on. The bottom line is that there are a lot of studies that find that honey kills bacteria on contact. So how can you use this to your advantage?
- Add honey to marinades. Preparing meat with a marinade in the refrigerator not only can kill infections, it can also change the meat so that fewer cancer-causing carcinogens during grilling.
- Add honey to salad dressings. Honey in a salad dressing will kill bacteria. Vinegar in a salad dressing will slow down bacteria while honey is doing its work.
- Use honey instead of sugar to bring out the juices in berries and fruits.
The key to all of these suggestions is to keep hot food hot and cold food cold, and to allow at least an hour's contact of honey to the meat, vegetable, or fruit being prepared before serving. Don't worry about adding lots and lots of honey. It actually works better when it is diluted with other liquids (as long as it's at least 5-10% of the ingredients by volume).
Will any kind of honey work? The main thing is to be sure you have real honey, not sugar water! Some honeys are fighting certain species of bacteria better than others, but honey is just part of what you do to fight foodborne infection. Here are more important suggestions:
- Don't just wash the tops of produce under running water. Turn the fruit or vegetable over and wash the bottom, too.
- Don't store fruits and vegetables with rough skins in the same bin or bag as fruits and vegetables with smooth skins. Rough skins, such as the rind on canteloupes, harbor bacteria.
- Refrigerate meat and produce as soon as you come home. Use an insulated grocery tote or ice chest to bring fresh food home from the store during the summer months. Simply keeping food cold on the trip from the market to the refrigerator will stop bacterial growth.
- Use commercial fruit and vegetable washes if you like but be aware that they only get rid of about 0.1% of the bacteria. Washing under clean tap water gets rid of the rest.
- Your body kills foodborne infections with stomach acid. Don't take antacids before or after eating salads or rare meat. Eat bitter greens in a salad at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the production of stomach acid to kill bacteria and dissolve allergens.
- Kwakman PH, de Boer L, Ruyter-Spira CP, Creemers-Molenaar T, Helsper JP, Vandenbroucke-Grauls CM, Zaat SA, te Velde AA. Medical-grade honey enriched with antimicrobial peptides has enhanced activity against antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2011 Feb;30(2):251-7. Epub 2010 Oct 7.
- Mead PS, Slutsker L, Dietz V, McCaig LF, Bresee JS, Shapiro C, Griffin PM, Tauxe RV. Food-related illness and death in the United States.Emerg Infect Dis. 1999 Sep-Oct;5(5):607-25. Review.
- Tan HT, Rahman RA, Gan SH, Halim AS, Hassan SA, Sulaiman SA, Kirnpal-Kaur B. The antibacterial properties of Malaysian tualang honey against wound and enteric microorganisms in comparison to manuka honey. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2009 Sep 15;9:34.