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What’s in Your Honey?

Honey is composed primarily of the simple sugars glucose and fructose, known as monosaccharides, and approximately 17% to 20% water. Honey also contains numerous other types of sugars, as well as acids, proteins and minerals.

Sucrose, which is composed of fructose and glucose linked together, is a disaccharide; it comprises a little over 1% of the composition of honey. Honey contains other disaccharides as well, including maltose, sucrose, and others, which total about 7% of its composition. In addition, honey also contains other more complex carbohydrates known as oligosaccharides. These are medium-sized carbohydrates, containing more than three simple sugar sub-units, often made of mono and disaccharides.

Before your eyes start to glaze over, this short chemistry lesson will help you understand why one honey is dense and spreadable, while another honey is loose and pourable, and possibly even why you prefer one honey over another.

Fructose is slightly sweeter than sucrose; glucose is less sweet, and maltose less sweet still. The 'sweetness' of a mono-floral honey - a honey made from a single flower source - is dependent on the ratio of fructose to glucose and the balance of sugars that result from the bees' processing the nectar of a particular flower. The more fructose that is present, the sweeter the honey, and most of the honey sold in supermarkets is a blend of varietals created to provide a consistent flavor and sweetness profile. In those supermarket honeys, where fructose predominates, the honey tends to taste slightly sweeter than cane sugar, which is 100% sucrose. The breakdown of sugars in honey affects not only its taste and appearance, but also its usefulness in cooking and baking.

Honey also contains amino acids and organic acids, which affect its flavor and nutritional properties. These acids also give honey a low overall acidity, which helps prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms, and play a key role in the antiseptic properties of honey. Sometime you will see honeys that have a number designation like, “8+” on them. This number is an indication of the amount of beneficial antibacterial activity in a particular honey.

Honey is rich in antioxidants, and also contains small amounts of protein, ash, and a host of vitamins and minerals. Variations in these minor components also contribute to the final color, texture, and flavor of individual honey varieties. Now we're getting down to business.

Crystallization vs the Squeezable Pooh

Many people who come into our shop in Seattle are curious about why some honeys are smooth and pourable, while others are thick, grainy and spreadable.

The components of honey can and do vary with the sources of the nectar the bees collect, which in turn are affected by a host of natural phenomenon, such as weather, location, and season. Crystallization is a completely natural process that occurs when the glucose in the honey precipitates out of the supersaturated sugar solution. (Honey is supersaturated because there is over 70% sugar and less than 20% water.)

The glucose loses water and forms a crystal, which then acts as a seed to form more crystals, and the end result is a semi-solid state. Other small particles, such as pollen or even tiny air bubbles, can also act as seeds for crystal formation. So, the tendency for honey to crystallize is dependent on the overall glucose content, moisture level, and the existence of more that 180 other substances that are contained in any given batch of honey, including small particles such as dust, pollen, bits of wax, propolis and even air bubbles.

While some honey never seem to crystallize, others crystallize within a few days of its extraction from the hive and most will do so within a few weeks. Is this good or bad?

Liquid honey is easier to handle and package, and so we have all been trained - by the squeezable bear - to believe that this is the natural state of fresh, high quality honey. Filtering and heat-treating are used, in part, to prevent crystallization and improve handling – it is the standard part of honey processing especially by large beekeepers that supply large food processors.

Storage conditions, temperature, humidity and even container type can also influence a honey's tendency to crystallize. A decrease in moisture content will increase the tendency to crystallize while an increase in temperature will have the opposite effect. In some cases, one season’s crystallized honey can be another season’s liquid honey. But, if you decide you prefer liquid honey, you can always liquify it by heating it up – but be careful! Too much heat will alter the texture permanently – not to mention the health benefits. Many people prefer the eye appeal of a crystallized honey and appreciate its spreadable texture. Click on the article, “All About Honey Article" to see a chart of the typical crystallization tendencies of some popular honey varieties.

Side note: Crystallized honey should not be confused with honey that has been 'creamed.' Creamed honey is produced using a process that involves heating the honey several times and then chilling it.

It’s a Question of Color and Flavor…

There is a wind range of colors and an almost infinite nuance of flavos in honeys produced from the various sources of floral nectar. There are more than 300 unique sources of honey here in the USA, and it is estimated that there are over 3000 sources worldwide, everything from cabbage blossom to sunflower. Whereas the sugar components of a given honey have a predominant impact on its texture, it is the unique mineral and other minor components that have the greatest affect on the color and flavor characteristics. Also, honey color is temperature sensitive, and most honeys will begin to darken as the storage temperature increases.

As a general rule, lighter honeys have milder flavors while darker honeys are more robust and complex. The individual nuances of taste are complicated by the degree of sweetness and the presence of acids. The range of flavor in mono-floral honeys goes from almost ethereally light in the case of many European acacia honeys, to the mildly floral and pleasantly sweet in Sicilian citrus blossom honeys, and to the boldly floral in French lavender and rosemary honey. The range of flavor goes even farther from the citrus assertiveness of sunflower honey of Provence, to the highly floral and aromatic leatherwood honey from Tasmania. Finally, the most aromatic, most complex flavored honeys tend to be made from the blossoms of trees – buckwheat honey being one of the most notable exceptions – such as oak, chestnut, and pine. Tree honeys are usually dark brown liquids with distinctive complex aromas, even bitter flavors that lean to caramel, molasses, and even prune. In many cases they are an acquired taste.

What's all the fuss you might ask? Why not just stick to the cheap little squeeze bear and be done with it?

The squeeze bear is fine assuming what you want a honey that will always taste the same (more or less,) and all you are going to use it for is an occasional cup of tea or marinade. In other words, if it's just the "sweet" aspect of honey that you are interested in, then by all means stick with the squeeze bear. But in my mind, there should be more to honey than just “sweet.” The range of flavors and textures is astounding, and most importantly, it is easy to taste and enjoy.

Next article >> What Honey Can Do For You

(c) ChefShop.com, 2005
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