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Honey has long been appreciated for its sweet flavor. But, one aspect that continues to puzzles honey-lovers is the process of crystallization. Honey crystallization is a natural process that changes liquid honey into a thick, semi-solid state. Understanding why does honey crystallize and the science behind it reveals the truly miraculous composition of this product.
There is a bit of science involved in this transformation process but I promise it is not that difficult to understand. Every jar of honey is a little different. Whether regular honey or raw, the nectar source used to make it is the first factor that affects crystallization.
The Science Behind Honey Crystallization
You may call it crystallizing, granulation or “honey that turns to sugar” but the composition this product from the beehive plays a huge role the change.
There are many different types of honey due to the many nectar sources used to make it. But, let’s not forget – honey is sugar.
Honey is a mix of different kinds of sugars. The primary ones are glucose and fructose. The remaining components in honey are water, pollen, vitamins, salts, minerals, etc.
But, the fact that honey is about 80% sugar is a key to crystallization.
Ratios of Glucose and Fructose
Glucose is highly soluble in water. This means it mixes with and dissolves well with water. However, fructose is not as water soluble.
Each kind of honey varies in the percentages of these sugars. Those with a high glucose content are more likely to crystallize than one with a higher fructose level.
Scientists classify honey as a supersaturated solution. With a high level of sugars and a low water content, there are more sugars in it than would normally be dissolved at room temperature.
This means that over time, the sugar concentration intensifies as the honey ages. Excess sugar crystals come out of solution and begin to form seed crystals.
These seed crystals interlock as the process continues moving towards a solid product. The texture and grain size of the crystals varies depending honey variety, temperature, and storage conditions.
Temperature and Crystallization
Temperature has a major influence on the rate of honey crystallization. This is why it is important to learn how to store honey properly if you want to encourage it to stay in liquid form.
A bee colony usually maintains a temp of near 95°F inside the hive. At this temperature, the sugar and water balance is comfortable this is called a homeostatic condition.
When removed from the warm hive environment to a cooler temperature (our room temp), the sugar/water balance changes again.
The product works to become “comfortable” – becoming less liquid and more solid to attain the balance.
Very cool temperatures (in the refrigerator?) promote the formation of sugar crystals. Warmer temperatures slow down the crystallization process.
But, sudden temperature changes and cause crystal formation to begin. That’s why a warm stable location for your jar of honey is important.
Role of Impurities
What one person considers any impurity may not be considered such by another. For instance, bits of beeswax and pollen are often found in raw honey.
With all other factors (sugar ratio, temperature etc.) being the same, honey with these substances will generally crystallize faster.
This is why pure raw honey is more likely to crystallize than pasteurized or micro-filtered honey.
Factors that Affect Crystallization Rate
There are several important factors that determine if your honey crystallizes and how quickly it may happen. Some of them can be controlled by us and some can not.
- nectar source
- filtering process
- storage temperature
Bees visit millions of blooming plants to collect nectar. The chemical composition of that nectar varies from plant to plant.
The nectar source affects the shade or color of honey, flavor, aroma and crystallization rate.
Most jars from large commercial companies are micro-filtered to remove tiny bits of wax, pollen, etc. This allows them to sit beautifully in a warehouse for months without changing form without crystallizing.
Cool storage temperatures begin the process. You can see the stages of crystallization in a container that is just beginning to solidify – it looks cloudy.
This process continues with the crystals forming and growing until the composition (balance) becomes stable. Eventually the whole jar may become solid.
A lot of people throw away perfectly good jars of crystallized honey. It’s so sad and that is not what I want you to do.
If it has been stored in an airtight container and no moisture/water has gotten inside, you can usually save it.
Learn how to reverse the crystallization process or as we say in the trade – decrystallizing honey without damaging it.
Embrace the Difference of Crystallized Honey
Not every type of honey crystallizes in the same way. Some varieties develop small fine crystals that are more palatable for consumers.
The size of the crystals determines whether or not it tastes gritty on the tongue. I have even met a few people who prefer the gritty texture.
When crystallization occurs in controlled conditions, it results in a thick and smooth texture. You can buy crystallized honey.
It is sold under the names – whipped, spun or creamed. But, there is no cream in the product.
Or, learn how to make your own creamed honey at home. Put it in a pretty jar, add a little powdered cinnamon and you have a special gift idea.
Unless you have a jar of honey from a nectar source that resists crystallization – you can expect it to happen eventually.
Once you learn more about the composition of this awesome product, the magic of the beehive becomes even more impressive.
Yes, crystallized honey is delicious on toast, biscuits, a bagel or as a topping for oatmeal.
If your jar has a grainy, sour smell, it has fermented and that is a different story.
Honey is hygroscopic meaning that it can absorb moisture from the air. That’s why it should always be stored in a sealed container.
It usually takes several months for a jar to crystallize. However, some types of honey will thicken much quicker.
Clover honey is known to crystallize in a short time. While Sourwood honey or Tupelo (both considered some of the best honeys in the world) may never become solid-as they contain more fructose.
Overall, it is very common for a jar of honey to slowly become stable and form crystals over a period of several months to a year.
This may be challenging as nectar source is one factor in the rate of crystallization. But, by storing it in a warm location, you can slow down the process.
Crystallized honey is not a sign that it is bad. It does NOT crystallize because something has been added to it.
This is a common myth- that someone has added cane syrup or something to it and caused the honey to turn to sugar -not true.
Pure raw honey will usually crystallize much earlier than that found in the large stores. Remember however, that by the same token: crystallization does not prove that it is pure either.
Crystallized honey is as nutritious as liquid-but not more so. Some people enjoy using it in their coffee or use the honey in tea.
If you have ever reached for your jar of delicious honey and found a gritty solid mass – you have experienced crystallized honey. This is a natural process and no cause for alarm. Don’t throw it out. It is still edible and can be transformed back to a liquid state if you prefer.