Why Is Some Honey Darker than Others?​

We tend to think of honey as a very distinctive color. It’s so iconic that we use “honey” as a descriptive term for things that are blond or golden. However, there’s a lot of variation in the hue of honey. From deep, dark brown to pale, translucent colors, honey’s much more diverse than the caramel liquid we’re accustomed to in the mainstream.

What Is the Difference Between Light and Dark Honey?

Color is one of the ways that natural honey is graded. The color doesn’t determine quality but is used as a description for the sale of the product. 

Lighter honey is generally sweeter, with more subtle floral tones. Darker honey usually has more intense notes of molasses and malt. 

Some typical, lighter-colored honey are fireweed, sage and sourwood. Blueberry, avocado and buckwheat have a more stable, opaque shade. 

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies the color of honey as thus:

  • Dark amber 
  • Amber
  • Light amber
  • Extra light amber
  • White
  • Extra white 
  • Water white

These tones reflect the measure of the intensity of a honey varietal on a range called the Pfund scale, used by the honey industry to determine color. 

The Pfund scale has an amber-colored wedge of glass that a sample of honey is compared to. The distance that the sample has to be moved away from the amber base is measured in millimeters. Each of the categories is given a millimeter range. For example, the average measurement of eucalyptus honey is 58 mm, which makes it a light amber honey. 

What Does Dark Honey Mean?

The minerals present in the viscous syrup come from the composition of the soil and other environmental factors that affected the nectar source. Water, earth and air quality contribute minerals to the nectar that honey’s based on. 

Minerals present in honey create a difference in the final presentation of the product. Pale honeys have about a 0.04 percent mineral content. Darker honey can have a content of around 0.2 percent. 

Mineral levels and antioxidant properties have a positive correlation. This means that darker honey — those with more minerals — are more antioxidant than lighter-colored honey. Some honeys have antioxidant levels that rival tomatoes and sweet corn. A jar of dark honey is in no way an indication that the honey is bad.

Big jar of half crystallized honey on a windowsill in a winter morning

What Affects the Color of Honey?

From the source to the storage, the honey hue is determined at each stage of the process of honey. You may be getting darker honey because of:

  • Floral source of your nectar
  • Exposure to heat in processing and/or storage 

Floral Source of Your Nectar

The color of the pollen grains can make a big difference in the tone of the end product.

As bees tend to the hive, they bring pollen grains on their legs that inevitably mix with uncapped honey. Some pollen, like that of a lily, with its dark red grains, has a distinctive color capable of staining. The honey produced from a lily flower reflects the grain.

Due to seasonal variations in blooming, bees from the same hive and foraging in the same area can produce honey of different coloration. If one floral species blooms at the beginning of the honey flow and another at the end of the season, the same bees will produce honey of different colors and flavors. 

Exposure to Heat in Processing or Storage 

Heat plays an important role in the darkening of honey once it’s been harvested. 

The amino acids and main sugars in honey — fructose and glucose — caramelize in the presence of heat. This activity is called the Maillard reaction. It happens in other foods as well. For example, the reaction causes browning in meat.

In the processing and storage of honey, the liquid is exposed to heat. The methods for processing exist to stabilize honey and keep the quality, color, flavor, and composition steady for the consumer. If misapplied, they can deteriorate color. 

To keep honey from crystallizing or fermenting, the producers pasteurize the liquid at high heat. In the pasteurization process, honey can be exposed to high temperatures that trigger the Maillard reaction.

Storage is also a concern in relation to heat. Storage is the exposure of honey to low amounts of heat over long periods. If honey is stored in a place that has high temperatures, the caramelization effect can take place. 

In general, these effects are related. The change in color that may happen quickly in pasteurization can happen more slowly in storage. 

What Is Dark Honey Good For?

From the methods that you use to process honey, the ways that you store it and the flowers that feed your honey bees, many factors of honey creation affect its coloration. 

Darker honey generally has a higher mineral content and greater concentrations of antioxidants. However, if your honey darkens once it’s out of the hive, the temperature may be the main culprit. Honey color doesn’t determine quality, although it can give a clue as to what flower or flavor to expect.

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