Wait, don’t throw away that honey!
Have you ever looked at your honey jar and noticed a crystalized film on the bottom? Did you think, “oh no, my honey has gone bad!” Well, don’t throw away that honey just yet, let’s take a look at what happened.
We all know honey as sweet liquid gold, ambrosia of the gods, and floral nectar refined by honey bees. It’s composed of almost 50% sugar, giving it a sweet taste, but it also contains enzymes, acids, trace minerals/vitamins/proteins and water1, providing life sustaining benefits to the honey bee for winter. Honey bees primarily use sugar as food but the additional enzymes help to breakdown the complex sugars from nectar into a simpler, more refined form that is easy to digest. For people, the simple sugars give honey a much sweeter taste than a similar amount of table sugar.
In addition to sugar, the other ingredients work to preserve honey, creating a lasting product. Although it is not easy to taste, the pH of honey is similar to diluted vinegar which helps to inhibit microbial growth as the product ages in the hive. The key factor to preserving honey is to keep the moisture content below 18%2, which works in partnership with the pH to keep any yeast present in a dormant state. As nectar ages into honey, the honey bee will place a wax capping over the ripe honey in the comb indicating to the beekeeper that the honey is at the correct moisture content and ready for harvest.
There are times when things don’t work out correctly and honey goes bad, typically by fermentation. This can be directly contributed to high moisture content from one of two ways: harvesting honey too early or improper storage of the honey allowing it to draw moisture. While it is critical to keep the moisture content below 18%, honey is also hydrophilic, meaning it can draw moisture directly from the air. If honey is exposed to air for too long, it will draw in water and start the fermentation process. Fermented honey typically has a lot of streaks and air bubbles in it and has a very distinct odor. This product is not edible in its current form but can be processed into mead, although the results will not be as appealing as mead made with cultured yeast.
But what are those crystals in your honey? These crystals are the sugar changing from a liquid to a solid form. Different honey varieties have different types of sugar and quantities, so some varieties will form sugar faster than others. Additionally, as the temperature cools, honey will also be more likely to crystalize. Crystalized honey was discovered in the tombs of Egypt (2400BC) and in Markopi and Bedeni tombs (4300BC)3 perfectly preserved, so don’t be fooled into thinking crystalized honey has gone bad. Simply liquefy your honey by boiling a pot of water and turning the stove off, then place your honey bottle in the hot water and walk away. When you water has returned to room temperature, your honey will be back to a liquid state and ready to eat again.
Program Manager, Certified Kentucky Honey
Certified Kentucky Honey is a marketing program by the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association to assist consumers in purchasing genuine Kentucky produced honey.
1 J. M. Graham, The Hive and the Honey Bee, 5th ed. (Dadant and Sons, 2015), 680
2 Ibid., 682
3 Katy, “World’s Oldest Honey“