When It Comes To Infants And Sweeteners, Sugar Is Safer Than Honey
"We have warned parents for years that infants can become ill from Clostridium botulinum spores in honey," says Tim Roberts, Virginia Cooperative Extension food safety specialist at Virginia Tech. "There is also a chance that garden produce, particularly root vegetables that are not peeled and/or properly washed, may also carry the risk of exposure to C. botulinum spores."
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that botulism is a rare but serious food-borne disease. It is caused by contamination of certain foods by the botulism bacterium commonly found in the soil. There are three different illnesses: food-borne botulism, wound botulism, and infant botulism with food-borne botulism and infant botulism the most prevalent. While the United States averages only 110 reported cases of botulism each year, according to the CDC, 72 percent are cases of infant botulism.
An adult may become ill by eating spoiled food containing the botulism toxin. This toxin is produced when the bacteria grow in improperly canned foods and occasionally in contaminated fish.
Eating the spores of the C. botulinum bacterium causes infant botulism. Unlike older children and adults, infants under one year of age do not have the gut flora, good bacteria, to fend off C. botulinum spores. When infants consume contaminated honey or produce, C. botulinum spores colonize the intestinal tract and infect the colon. The spores themselves are not toxic, but in the infant's gut, the spores germinate and release the botulinum neurotoxin. The toxin is absorbed into the blood stream and binds to nerves causing paralysis.
"By the time infants are 12 months old, they develop the adult-type competing gut flora that help protect them from infection by C. botulinum," explains Roberts. "One study suggests that infants may be more susceptible to develop infant botulism when their diets undergo change, such as from breast milk to formula or when "solid" foods are added."
It is likely, according to the CDC, that all infants are potentially susceptible to infant botulism if they happen to meet the spores when their intestinal flora is vulnerable to colonization. An infant who eats honey faces eight times the risk of botulism infection as does one who does not eat honey, because honey tends to contain high levels of C. botulinum spores. Luckily, infants rarely die from infant botulism, but many do require extensive hospitalization.
Wash fresh veggies
Soil is the primary habitat of Clostridium botulinum spores. "Therefore, from the point of food safety, parents should peel and thoroughly wash garden vegetables, particularly root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and potatoes used to make homemade baby foods for infants," says Roberts. To date, there have been no reports of infant botulism from consumption of fresh produce.
"Do not feed home-prepared, pureed vegetables to an infant until he or she is well established on cereals or canned baby food. This will help ensure that the child does not have the potential exposure to botulism spores while the gut microflora is undergoing changes," he explains
"I would also avoid feeding home-prepared vegetables during or immediately after a severe case of diarrhea as well, because diarrhea will cause instability of the infant's gut microflora," Roberts adds.
"We all want to give our children the most healthful foods, including all of the vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables," says Roberts. "Therefore infants on solid foods should consume only vegetables that have been thoroughly washed and avoid honey completely rather than take a chance of botulism infection."