Honey, it's Chemistry!

    Kids, what is both a sweetener and an antiseptic, is the most mentioned food in the Bible, and is the only food manufactured for us by animals?   Believe it or not, the answer is honey.   Honey comes in many forms.   Extracted honey is a liquid that has been removed from the honeycombs using a centrifuge.   These machines are called extractors in the beekeeper's world.  Comb honey is still in the original beeswax combs made by the bees.  This type is less adaptable to cooking, but real honey-lovers prefer its natural flavors.

    Please note:  All chemicals and experiments can entail an element of risk, and no experiments should be performed without proper adult supervision.

    An average worker bee will visit 50-100 flowers on each collection trip.  Yet in her lifetime, the busy bee will gather enough nectar to make only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey!   Field honeybees gather the nectar, a sweet secretion in plant blossoms that contains fructose, glucose and sucrose as well as trace proteins, salts and acids.   This goes in their honey stomach, where it is mixed with enzymes and the chemistry of the nectar is slightly altered.   The taste, odor, and quality of honey varies with the type of flower from which the nectar is gathered.   Soil chemistry and honeycomb quality also influence how honey tastes and looks.  Honey may vary from clear (alfalfa from alkaline soils) to very dark (buckwheat from acidic soils).  Colors between these can be golden, red, and even green.

    The chemical composition of honey is about 82% carbohydrates.   These are fructose and glucose (70%); 9% sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose and kojibiose, and 4% erlose, theanderose and panose.   Sound like a chemical cupboard?   There are many more:   proteins and amino acids (enzymes such as invertase, amylase, glucose oxidase, catalase, and 18 free amino acids, of which the most abundant is proline).   Then there are the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese, and antioxidant flavonoids, of which one, pinocembrin, is unique to honey).   And there are even more compounds that we won't list.

    Has your honey ever turned cloudy, grainy and difficult to pour?   Honey tends to crystallize because it is a supersaturated solution of sugar in water.   Crystallization depends on carbohydrate composition.   The fructose/glucose and glucose/water ratios are used to help predict the tendency of honey to crystallize.  Honeys with a low glucose/water ratio do not crystallize easily.   Processed honey should be stored between 64-75 °F.   Unprocessed (raw) honey should be stored at or below 50 °F.  If your honey has crystallized, slowly warm it to 115-120 °F to melt the crystals.   You can test this by buying different types of honey and recording the time that they take to crystallize at different temperatures.  Then remove the crystals by warming the honey (remove the lid and place the jar in warm water until crystals dissolve).   You will have to be patient though because crystallization can take a few weeks. 


    Kathleen Carrado Gregar, PhD, Argonne National Labs 
    [email protected]
    January 2004


    Reference: For inspiration, the Food Network Alton Brown's Good Eats episode on honey (EA1D13).   Also,,, and