Why Does Honey Crystallize? It’s Nothing To Worry About

Ready for a little science talk?

Don’t worry, we won’t make it too complicated.

If you only wanted to know whether crystallized honey could still be reused, that answer doesn’t require any science at all. The answer is easy: yes, you can just warm it up and make it liquid and runny again.

But understanding why honey crystallizes requires an easy-to take scientific explanation.

Here it is.

What Is Crystallized Honey?

You’ve almost certainly seen it, even if you didn’t know what it was called.

When you bring a bottle or jar of honey home from the grocery store, the honey is in a beautiful and gooey liquid form. As it sits on your shelf over time, however, it’s likely to get grainy, crunchy and may even become completely solid.

That’s called crystallized honey, because some of the molecules in honey will eventually escape from the liquid substance and form crystals. Crystals tend to multiply rapidly, so what’s left in the jar after a while isn’t something “different” – it’s just honey in a semi-solid or solid form.

If you put the jar into a warm water bath and stir, that process will decrystalize the honey and it will be soft and luscious liquid honey again. (Don’t use hot water since high heat can damage the honey. And always decrystallize honey in a glass jar.)

Why causes the crystallization of honey? Here comes the science.

The Composition of Honey

The reason honey is sweet is because it’s primarily composed of sugar. Approximately 70% of honey is either fructose or glucose, around 10% is made up of disaccharides (double or complex sugars), and about 20% of honey is water. Minerals, vitamins and other substances are only a very small percentage of honey’s composition; it’s basically a sugar solution.

The simple sugar-to-water content ratio of 70% to 20% is what’s most important, because that’s much more sugar than can remain naturally dissolved in water. In chemistry terms, that means honey in its natural state is a “supersaturated solution.”

Honey is initially condensed into liquid form in the hive. That’s due to the enzymes it contains, and the evaporation of water caused when honey bees flap their wings rapidly over the honeycomb. But after the beekeeper harvests the honey, the delicate sugar-water balance can’t remain forever. Glucose has less ability to remain dissolved than fructose (chemists call property that “lower solubility”), so eventually, the chains of glucose in the honey begin to break down.

As glucose molecules begin falling out of the sugar-water solution, they attach themselves to pollen grains or other solid matter in the honey – and then to each other. So the crunchy stuff that develops during the process of crystallization in honey is really nothing more than a whole lot of sugar crystals. That’s why you can easily turn honey back into its liquid state by heating it: the heat simply melts the crystals, which are restored into the honey solution.

Just like snowflakes, not all crystals are the same. The faster honey crystallizes, the smaller and finer the crystals will be. If the crystals form over a long period of time, they’re more likely to be larger and grittier.

Why One Type of Honey Crystallizes Faster Than Another

The speed at which honey crystallization takes place depends on a number of factors. The most important is how much glucose is in the honey because, as we’ve learned, glucose is the simple sugar which will form crystals.

Different types of honey have vastly different glucose-to-fructose ratios. And since honey crystallization occurs when glucose falls out of solution, varieties containing more glucose (like alfalfa, dandelion and clover honey) will begin crystallizing more quickly. On the other hand, crystallization of honeys like tupelo, acacia and blackberry will take a much longer time because they contain much more fructose and less glucose.

Other Factors Affecting the Crystallization of Honey

Raw vs. processed honey

Raw honey still contains small amounts of pollen, propolis, beeswax and other slight impurities, which are largely responsible for honey’s many health benefits. Those tiny bits and pieces are solids, just waiting for glucose to attach to them after they fall out of the sugar-water solution. So the ingredients in high-quality, raw and natural honey are more likely to encourage the formation of crystals.

By contrast – and by design – the “pure honey” that processors sell undergoes filtration and pasteurization, removing the solid particles that glucose can latch onto. Why is it by design? To ensure that the honey won’t crystallize. By bottling honey that’s less likely to crystallize, producers can ship honey that will remain on store shelves for long periods of time, still liquid and still attractive to consumers.

Honey storage

Where you store your honey makes a big difference in how quickly it will crystallize. Temperatures below 50° will jump-start the natural process of crystallization; that’s why honey will solidify so quickly when you keep it in the refrigerator. It will remain in its liquid state much longer if stored at room temperature. (That doesn’t mean, though, that hotter is better; once the temperature is above 75-80°, honey can begin to degrade. It will start to taste bitter and it will lose any of its beneficial effects.)

Crystallized Honey Isn’t Spoiled Honey

Clearly – despite what many people believe – crystallized honey is not spoiled. It’s simply in a solid or semi-solid form instead of its beautiful liquid state. As previously explained, it can be decrystallized easily in a warm water bath.

But there’s no law saying you have to decrystallize it. In fact, honey retains its characteristics, like flavor and quality, for longer periods of time if it remains solid. Some recipes even call for the use of crystallized raw honey, because its texture makes it easier to cook with and because it has a richer taste.

You can use it as is, too. It’s delicious when spread on toast or a bagel, sprinkled on oatmeal or yogurt, or eaten straight out of the jar. Some people even use crystallized honey for body and facial care, as an ingredient in face masks, balms and scrubs – and it’s just as effective as liquid honey for treating burns and wounds.