Why is some honey “set” and some honey “runny?”

People often ask us if Monte-Bellaria honey—which is sometimes dense and semi-crystalized—has “gone bad.”  The answer is definitely NO!  It is, in fact a sign that the honey that you’ve purchased is pure, raw honey.

We’ve discussed before that raw honey is unprocessed.  In particularly this means that the honey:

  • Contains many of the natural ingredients from the bee hive, e.g. beeswax, pollen, vitamins, nutrients and propolis (a reddish-brown tree sap that bees use to seal unwanted openings in the hive) have not been filtered out;
  • Has not been pasteurized or high-heat treated.

When you process honey, you lose many of the health-related benefits.  Heat and over-filtration are used to obtain consistency and long shelf-life as a runny honey.  Titration can be used to set standards for adding non-honey components to obtain a steady product consistency (i.e. to correct for too much or too little water content).

Raw honey tends to crystallize around bits of natural bee hive products that aren’t processed out.

As the honey is being stored by the bees in the hive, the ambient environment is also a factor.  If the hive is very moist, the honey will take longer to mature (dry).  Some beekeepers put dried lavender stems (haulm) in the top of the hive to help regulate humidity.  This absorbent material creates a setting that is good for the bees and produces a good, mature honey.

That said, all honeys have a small amount of water that is bonded to the sugar molecules; but water is more easily removed from glucose, and the result is that crystals form more quickly and make the honey into the consistency of a soft, grainy candy.  The little granules in a set honey are primarily glucose crystals.

Whether the honey “sets” or not also depends on the time of year and what flowers are being foraged for nectar.  Some flowers produce a very sweet flavor, but tend to be over weighted in fructose.  Other flowers produce nectar that tips towards the less-sweet, but rich, glucose.  Flowers that are big producers of glucose (like lavenders) will produce honey that is more prone to crystallization.

Fructose-heavy honeys are sweeter and will remain fluid longer.  BUT fructose is also linked to many health problems such as type 2 diabetes.

One other factor that plays a minor role in crystallization is the mineral content of the water source that the bees are using.  If the water is super high on the mineral content scale, it will add to the rate at which the honey sets.  This generally won’t affect the taste.

In many parts of the world, crystalized honey is prized.  But if you really want a more runny honey for the table, all you need to do is manipulate one more variable: temperature.  To return a set honey to a more store-bought consistency, just put the jar (with lid on) in a pan of hot water (about 120°F) for 20 minutes or set the jar in a sunny window for several hours.

However, we recommend that you NEVER microwave raw honey, because you will destroy many of the natural ingredients that are really good for you!  To that point, PureHealingFoods.com writes that “RAW honey contains up to 80 different substances important to human nutrition. Besides glucose and fructose, honey contains: All of the B-complex, A, C, D, E, and K, minerals and trace elements: magnesium, sulfur, phosphorus, iron, calcium, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, and manganese.”

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