The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
By: Kellie Lynn Jensen
Honey is not only delicious but is packed full of wonderful things that are beneficial to our health and well being such as antioxidants, vitamins, probiotics, amino acids, minerals, and enzymes. It’s reported to contain over 200 beneficial substances in its composition and can vary depending on the flora the bees feed on. Honey is especially known for its antibacterial properties which make it an excellent medicinal product. Although research and studies vary on the benefits, its long history of use for healing dates to the ancient times of Egypt and has not lost momentum in our day.
Honey is primarily made up of sugars: fructose and glucose.As a result, in time honey will naturally granulate, because the sugar glucose is unstable and will crystallize. Therefore, the more glucose the honey has the faster it will crystallize. Examples are clover, lavender, and dandelion honey. Honey from tupelo, acacia and sage have a higher fructose content and will crystallize at a slower rate. Honey that is granulated does not mean the honey has spoiled, quite the opposite. It’s a way of preserving itself and all its benefits. Honey that is sealed and granulated is by far the most shelf-stable food you can own. Many consumers of honey prefer their honey granulated. It can be easily spooned out of a jar, spread on toast, or even whipped into a smooth creamy spread. However, we shop and eat with our eyes and granulated honey is less visually attractive.
Reversing this process requires the honey to be heated. So, therein lies a question: does heating honey to reverse or prevent crystallizing affect its ingredients or its benefits? Yes and no. Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of heating honey.
What is a good temperature to warm honey to that will reverse or prevent the crystallizing process and yet maintain its benefits? Let’s take a lesson from the hive. Bees strive to keep their colonies at an approximate temperature of 95° F. This temperature keeps most of their honey in a liquefied state. Honey that has crystallized can be slowly warmed to this temperature. This begins the de-crystallizing process and returns the honey to a flowing liquid, while not damaging it. The key here is to slowly warm it. Honey should never be heated rapidly or over direct heat.
If it’s a small jar you’re trying to bring back to a liquid state, simply heat a pot of water to 95° F - 100° F, remove from the heat and set the jar inside the pot. Giving it time and an occasional stir, the honey will liquefy. Many beekeepers store their honey in tanks that are outfitted to maintain a regulated temperature. This helps to maintain its liquid state while waiting to be bottled. Smaller scale beekeepers are accustomed to storing honey in 5-gallon buckets, which makes the available use of a “Bee Blanket” handy. Bee Blankets are warmers that wrap around 5-gallon buckets to keep the honey from crystallizing, and some are equipped with thermostat controls to help keep a steady regulated temperature.
It doesn’t take much of a rise in temperature for things to turn bad. Once honey begins to reach temperatures of 104°F the degrading process begins. At this temperature an important enzyme called invertase is destroyed. Honeybees produce their own invertase and add this to the nectar. This enzyme helps change sucrose into equal parts glucose and fructose. It’s what starts the process of turning nectar into honey. For us this enzyme is essential and helps our bodies digest complex sugars. Including the very honey we are eating. There are other important ingredients that begin to degrade at this temperature and the higher the temperature rises the faster the degrading.
The ugly begins at around 122°F. At this temperature nutritional degrading speeds up. If held at this temperature for more than 48 hours the honey turns into caramel. Basically, the higher the temperature, the more rapid the degradation, and your left with honey sugars that are now comparable to cane sugars. Honey that is pasteurized, is raised to a temperature of 145°F. Pasteurization is a process intended to destroy organism and enzymes that can cause spoilage or risk of disease. When honey is pasteurized, the result is a sweet sugar syrup with little nutritional value. If you’re cooking with honey, due to the prolong exposure to high heats either the method is stove top, oven or microwave the honey will surely degrade and no longer have its nutritional value. Not only that, but it also loses its original flora flavor.
For beekeepers maintaining honey at 95°F to prevent crystallization may optimize your market appeal, while not sacrificing the valuable nutrition and long-standing reputation of honey containing medicinal properties.
Still others may find ways to market crystallized honey. Either way, there are serious advantages to avoiding pasteurizing or overheating your honey. Educating consumers may take time and effort but will result in benefits for them and the beekeeping community. Remember honey is delicious and nutritious, if we avoid the bad and the ugly of overheating our valuable resource.
By: Kellie Jensen