Australian honey has been revealed to contain high levels of a natural toxin that might potentially be dangerous, says a new study. On the other hand, honey experts assert that it is not threatening to consumers.
Researchers found the presence of natural toxin pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in 41 of 59 types of Australian honey. Its concentration is believed to exceed international safety levels: the amount of PAs calculated is around 4 times greater than that present in European honey.
How does the honey contain such a toxin? The latter’s origin goes back to pasture plants growing in Australia: about 600 types (including Paterson’s curse) thereof are said to produced PAs. These are synthesised as a response to predators like insect pests. However, when they find their way into the system of bees which come to drink nectar from the plants, humans are inadvertently exposed to their harm.
Previous research has demonstrated how high concentrations of PAs can lead to severe liver damage that might also cause death in humans. Additional evidence generated from tests on rodents and human cells in laboratory suggests that PAs can cause cancer. Though no direct link has been found and PAs are not classified as carcinogens, the available evidence has prompted researchers to warn against the compound.
The authors of the new study have, therefore, cautioned pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers against exposure to the toxins. United Nations expert on PAs, John Edgar, believes people should avoid them. In a statement to The Sydney Herald, he says that lowering contamination in foods like honey, teas, salads could significantly decrease cancer cases.
As a protective measure, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) stipulates that honey originating from these plants must be diluted with other honey types. Otherwise, removing the plants themselves is deemed not feasible. However, the new study shows that the average daily exposure was 0.051 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight for adults, and 0.204 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight for children – figures that are below the Australian limit of 1 microgram/ kilogram of bodyweight but that are much above the European Food Safety Authority maximum daily limit of 0.007 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight.
On the other hand, honey farmers from Australia claim that the information used by the researchers is outdated and exaggerated.
Jodie Goldsworthy from Victorian honey company Beechworth Honey argues that the study involves overestimates of honey consumption and underestimates of body weight, reports the ABC. According to him, Australians consume around 1 kilogram of honey per year (per individual) while the research mentions 7.5 kg.
However, experts do agree that it is better to avoid consuming honey from these plants until further testing is done.
Meanwhile, rest assured that there is no need to panic. Yet. Researcher Andrew Bartholomaeus
from the University of Canberra is of the opinion that a significant human health risk is unlikely, but that those consuming great amounts of the food might want to switch to honey from other plants.