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Why Does Honey Crystallize?

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Has your honey ever formed small lumps in it after sitting on the shelf for a while? Your honey hasn't gone bad, it's simply crystallized. In this lesson, we'll look at how and why this natural process occurs.

A Sweet Phenomenon

Have you ever gone to your cupboard to grab some honey and found that it looked a bit different than the last time? If it's been awhile since you used your honey chances are that it crystallized or formed solid crystals. Your honey may look strange, but don't worry, it's perfectly fine. In fact, it's a natural process that occurs because of the composition of the honey and even in this state ,honey can last on the shelf for a few years.

Honey is normally found as a liquid, but in this state it is super-saturated and unstable.
liquid honey

You see, honey is actually made up of different sugars and water, but not in equal parts. Honey is mostly sugar (over 70%) and just a little bit water (less than 20%). This means that it is a super-saturated solution, which is unstable and over time it will crystallize to form a more stable saturated solution.

Different Kinds of Honey

Before we go any further let's take a step back and look more closely at honey itself. You may not have realized that there are over 300 different kinds of honey sold in the U.S. alone. The different types of honey we get come from different types of plants pollinated by the bees. Clover, mesquite, tupelo, and orange blossom are just a few types you may be familiar with, and if you look closely at their names you'll see that they are also different plants! The name of the honey tells you what type of plant it came from, which is also why they all taste so different.

Honey comes in hundreds of different varieties.
varieties of honey

The Crystallization of Honey

In honey we find both glucose and fructose which are two kinds of sugars. And you can get an idea of how quickly your type of honey will crystallize if you know the ratio of these two sugars. Honeys with a low glucose-to-fructose ratio will crystallize more quickly and we find this to be true with floral honeys like dandelion and clover. If the glucose-to-fructose ratio is high, like with flowering trees such as tupelo and eucalyptus, then crystallization is much slower.

But why does this happen? Well, the glucose in the honey separates from the water and forms the actual crystals, while the fructose stays as a liquid. The crystals are lighter in color than the liquid part because glucose crystals are naturally pure white, and crystallization also makes the honey more viscous or thicker and slower flowing.

Crystallization is a natural process that occurs in honey when glucose separates out into crystals.
crystallized honey

The temperature at which you store your honey will also affect its crystallization. Keeping it in a warmer area will prevent crystallization while colder areas will increase the rate of crystal formation. Honey left on the comb will also crystallize slower than honey that has been extracted from the comb. And the presence of any particles like pollen or dust grains will also speed up the crystallization process.

You've probably already guessed that different types of honey crystallize differently and you're right! The quicker crystallization happens the finer the crystals tend to be. Crystals also come in different shapes and sizes. Crystallization can be uniform or varied, and sometimes crystallization occurs in different layers within the honey.

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