What Causes Honey To Crystallize?
Honey crystallization is a natural process that occurs with all types of honey. It only changes the structure and color of honey but doesn’t affect its quality in a bad way. On the contrary, crystallization makes honey more stable and keeps its nutritional value intact. Bees are the ones that make this happen.
As crystallized honey is harder to use in the kitchen, honey suppliers developed different ways to offer honey in a smoother or even liquid state. Nevertheless, processed honey can never maintain the quality of raw honey from the hives.
What Is Honey Made Of?
Bees fly out to the fields and collect nectar from flowering plants. They store it in their stomach called honey crop and return to the hive. There it will take them around half an hour to process the nectar.
Bees absorb the excess water from the nectar and break down the sugar molecules into smaller ones. This is done with the help of a special enzyme. Afterward, honey is left in the hive to be dehydrated and decomposed by the enzymes already present in the solution.
Research has shown that honey consists of at least 80 percent sugars and less than 20 percent water. Besides this, around 300 other substances are present in the mixture. Honey contains protein, different amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and minerals.
What Happens Before the Crystallization?
Granulation or crystallization is a natural process of any raw honey. Since honey consists mostly of carbohydrates and low content of water, this makes it a highly concentrated sugar solution.
A natural reaction here is to seek balance, but water can’t dissolve the surplus of sugar naturally. Therefore, a part of sugar needs to separate itself from the liquid and crystallize. This will leave the rest of the solution in balance. For it to happen, bees need to do their job.
When nectar is brought to the hive, it consists of regular sugar (sucrose) and water. Bees need to first transform sucrose into invert sugar, which means the separation of two monosaccharides present in the sugar — glucose and fructose.
Sucrose vs. Invert Sugar
It’s the special enzyme — invertase — coming from bees’ glands that is constantly transforming sucrose to invert sugar. This means transforming the interlinked molecules of glucose and fructose to a mixture of both.
The process is quite demanding and time consuming for the bees. Firstly, they consume regular sugar. Then, they process it and transform it to invert sugar with the help of invertase. Bees need to produce enough of the enzyme for this to happen. In the end, invert sugar as a sticky and moisture-absorbing emulsion represents up to 80 percent of honey.
The decomposition of regular sugar is a long-term process that continues even after the honey is taken from the hive and stored elsewhere. Nevertheless, a certain percentage of sucrose — between 1 and 5 percent — always stays present in honey.
It’s the Glucose That Crystallizes
Now that glucose and fructose are separated, crystallization occurs. The part of sugar that crystallizes is glucose. The other part, which dissolves in water naturally and remains in a liquid state, is fructose.
Honey contains approximately 26–43 percent glucose and 18–27 percent fructose. Crystallization of honey depends on the balance between these two monosaccharides.
How Fast Does Honey Crystallize?
Most honey doesn’t come from one single source, though. It’s impossible to predict its composition and crystallization in detail. Crystallization can happen in a few months, but can also take up to two years and more. It all depends on the percentage of glucose in honey.
Honey that contains more glucose will crystallize rapidly — in a few days to a few weeks. Aster, clover and dandelion honey fall into this group. Probably the most known honey, acacia, contains a higher level of fructose and crystallizes slowly. Some other types, such as eucalyptus, leatherwood and tupelo honey, are similar. They may stay liquid for years.
Honey may granulate almost completely and very fast. In this case, the crystals will be smaller in size, and the structure of honey more refined. No matter the size of the crystals, granulated honey is lighter in color than liquid or “runny” honey.
Why Do Beekeepers Decrystallize Honey?
The hive temperature is usually 90 degrees Fahrenheit and more. In these conditions, the sugar and water are in a stable state called homeostasis. Afterward, when honey is collected from the hive, it’s stored in a cooler environment with room temperature. This is still pretty stable, but different enough for glucose to start extracting itself from the rest of the solution. That’s when the first crystals start to form.
In terms of quality, there’s no good reason to decrystallize honey. But, even huge quantities of honey can crystallize, and this becomes a problem for beekeepers. To get honey out of their storage containers, they need to break its crystal structure and liquify it.
There are special bucket heaters available on the market, which warm the honey inside the containers slowly. The temperature changes just to the point when honey gets softer and, therefore, is easier to collect. This solution is especially convenient for everyone trying to store the honey in its raw form for as long as possible.
How Do Honey Suppliers Decrystallize Honey?
Crystallization preserves all the nutritional and healing qualities of honey. Therefore, liquid honey that usually sells best may not be the most natural and healthy honey to buy.
It seems like most of the people prefer purchasing liquid honey, though. Commercial honey is, therefore, most often in a liquid state. Suppliers keep it this way by heating or creaming it.
Pasteurization of Honey
Pasteurization (heating) of honey dissolves the crystals. It also destroys the microorganisms that can cause the honey to go bad. Moreover, heat processing reduces the moisture content to a level that keeps honey from fermenting.
Afterward, the honey is filtered. Filtration removes air bubbles and remaining hard particles (wax and pollen) from the liquid solution.
Creaming of Honey
Creaming is another way to prevent the honey from crystallizing completely. The point of creaming is to speed up the crystallization at a low temperature, resulting in a thick, but smooth, honey texture. After the creaming crystals are so tiny, you can’t even detect them with your naked eye.
A creamy or “cloudy” type of honey is very common on the market. However, if stored at high temperatures, it can become unstable. Its color will change, and the texture will become partly hard, partly liquid again.
How Can You Decrystallize Honey?
Temperatures ideal for crystallization are between 50 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want your honey to crystallize slower, put your honey jars in a place with a temperature above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooler temperatures, below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, also delay the crystallization process.
When stored properly, in a well-sealed jar or container, honey can’t turn bad. If the jar isn’t sealed properly, honey can absorb too much moisture from the air. This will lead to honey fermentation — you’ll know the honey’s gone bad by its smell.
Therefore, the crystallization of honey can never be a sign of poor quality. It can make the honey more difficult to scoop from the jar, though. In this case, you can make it softer or a liquid, with a few simple methods:
- Water bath.
- Warming cabinet.
Heat the water to between 95 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and leave the glass jar bathing for no more than 10–15 minutes. Overheating the honey could destroy its enzymes and other ingredients, which make it antibacterial and antiseptic. If possible, don’t warm up the whole jar of honey, but just the quantity you need at that moment.
Another way to make honey softer is to microwave it. You can do this in short intervals of 30 seconds on a medium temperature up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t forget to leave the jar uncovered, and stir in between sessions.
If you have an option to use a food warming cabinet, you can decrystallize your honey just like the beekeepers do. Put your honey in a glass jar uncovered and enclose it in the cabinet for 12–48 hours. The temperature shouldn’t be set higher than 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Crystals Equal Quality
Raw honey may be less attractive for some and not always easy to scoop out of the jar. Nevertheless, the crystallization of honey is a natural process of raw honey seeking balance and stability.
Until honey is collected by the beekeepers, bees secrete a special enzyme to take care of this balance. Once the honey is out of its natural environment — the hive — and kept at a different temperature, it starts to self-preserve through crystallization.
Decrystallization based on heat processing keeps honey in a liquid state. However, overheating and filtration of honey lowers its nutritional value. Keep this in mind when having a cup of hot tea with honey. Let the tea cool off a bit first and add a scoop of raw honey later. Your body will be grateful for it.