Life Science

Why does honey crystallize?

- asks K. York from Madrid, Spain

April 9, 2007
Honeycomb. [CREDIT: L'OCCITANE]
Honeycomb. [CREDIT: L'OCCITANE]

Some morning, when you go into your cabinet to grab honey for your toast, you may find something thick and cloudy in the bottle where your liquid gold treat once was. Has your honey gone bad? Should you throw it out? The answer is probably not. Stored properly, honey can actually last several years.

The main reason honey doesn’t go bad is because of its simple composition: honey is primarily sugar mixed with a little water. This natural, low-moisture state deters bacteria and yeast, both of which find dry environments inhospitable. However, the sugary substance’s inherent dryness can also lead to crystallization, the process that causes honey to become thick and cloudy. Crystallization, which can occur anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after honey has been bought, can be remedied by placing the honey container in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. But be warned: While honey may naturally have a long shelf life, heating and cooling the spread too many times can cause it to lose its color and aroma, according to the Honey Hotline Fact Sheet. After multiple heating sessions, it’s probably best to throw the honey away.

Several factors determine the time it will take honey to crystallize. First, there are the conditions of the room where the honey is stored. Hot conditions protect honey from crystallizing, but they also degrade the honey and make it vulnerable to yeast and bacteria. Temperatures that are too cold, however, can speed up crystallization. Honey resists crystallization best when kept in at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, according to experts.

Crystallization rate also depends on the type of honey you keep in your cabinet. There are over 300 types of honey sold in the U.S., according to foodreference.com, and each type crystallizes at a slightly different rate. Tupelo, a high fructose honey, for example, can last for years without crystallizing. Meanwhile, honey from cotton and dandelion blossoms crystallizes more readily.

The last factor that affects crystallization is whether the honey purchased is raw, semi-processed (such as strained), or processed. There is evidence that when stored properly unprocessed or raw honey, which comes straight from the honeycomb and is slightly more expensive to the buyer, resists crystallization longer than processed honey.

Keep in mind, however, that crystallization is not always a bad thing. Beekeepers use a process called controlled crystallization to produce rich and creamy honeys, such as spun honey or churned honey, that are more “spreadable” than the common liquid form. Most beekeepers make these honeys using a variation of a process known as the Dyce Method. This process consists of combining alternating periods of heating and cooling with lots of stirring. If you’re feeling ambitious, it is possible to try out Dyce’s method at home.

In the end, your choice of honey all depends on what you prioritize – flavor, consistency, or longevity. Just be aware that your choice could affect how long it takes for your honey to turn from smooth liquid into crystallized solid.

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About the Author

BS in biochemistry from Marlboro College, MS in neuroscience from Case Western Reserve University. Completed three years of neuroscience PhD program before realizing that academic science and I were never going to be a good fit. Enjoys good coffee, anything written by Kurt Vonnegut or Oliver Sacks, and traveling to far away places.

Discussion

94 Comments

Greg Duncan says:

Answered my question perfectly.

thanks

Kaston says:

“Some morning, when you go into your cabinet to grab honey for your toast, you may find something thick and cloudy in the bottle where your liquid gold treat once was.”

That’s exactly why I googled ‘crystallized honey’ and found this article. Thanks!

txgirl says:

Kaston — me, too!

Thanks y’all for explaining the why and how. Gotta love Google.

bill says:

This article doesn’t really explain why honey crystalizes. It describe conditions under which it occurs but “the sugary substance’s inherent dryness can also lead to crystallization” isn’t enough of an explanation for me.

psygrad says:

It was a great answer for me. I don’t really care what’s happening at the molecular level…it’s honey…I just want to know if I can eat it, or if I have to throw it out. However, Bill, I can give you the short and sassy on “why” honey crystallizes…it crystallizes because it can…and that’s good enough for me:-)

Jo says:

Saves me a trip to the grocery store! Thank you. :)

Matt says:

I was looking how to speed up the process since my wife actually prefers it crystallized… Thanks

Allie says:

Matt, if you’re looking to make it crystallize fast, I’ve noticed that when I’ve accidentally left a jar of honey on the windowsill in the sun, boom — it crystallizes completely. I’ve done this a few times, and it’s what led me to google “crystallized honey” in the first place!

Anand Deshmukh says:

Thanks for great deal of information. Being formulation scientist it helped me a lot to develop a better formulation. But i feel more of the explanation could have done much better. thanks anyways..

Anand Deshmukh says:

Honey sometimes takes
on a semi-solid state
known as crystallized or
granulated honey. This
natural phenomenon
happens when glucose,
one of three main sugars
in honey, spontaneously
precipitates out of the
supersaturated honey
solution. The glucose
loses water (becoming
glucose monohydrate)
and takes the form of a
crystal (a solid body with
a precise and orderly
structure).1 The crystals
form a lattice which
immobilizes other
components of honey in a
suspension thus creating
the semi-solid state.2
The water that was
previously associated
with the glucose becomes
available for other
purposes, thus increasing
the moisture content in
some parts of the
container of honey.
Because of the increased
moisture, the honey becomes
more susceptible to
fermentation.
While crystallization is usually
undesirable in liquid honey,
controlled crystallization can
be used to make a desirable
product. Crystallization can be
deliberately induced, and with
control, can be used to create
a product known as cremed
honey. This is also known as
creamed honey, spun honey,
whipped honey, churned
honey or honey fondant.
Spontaneous crystallization
results in a coarse and grainy
product. Controlled
crystallization results in a
product with a smooth,
spreadable consistency.
Why does honey crystallize?
Honey crystallizes because it
is a supersaturated solution.
This supersaturated state
occurs because there is so
much sugar in honey (more
than 70%) relative to the water
content (often less than 20%).
Glucose tends to precipitate
out of solution and the solution
changes to the more stable
saturated state.
The monohydrate form of
glucose can serve as seeds
or nuclei which are the
essential starting points for
the formation of crystals.
Other small particles, or even
air bubbles, can also serve as
seeds for the initiation of
crystallization.
What factors influence
crystallization?
Many factors influence the
crystallization of honey.
Some batches of honey never
crystallize, while others do so
within a few days of
extraction. Honey removed
from the comb and processed
with extractors and pumps is
likely to crystallize faster then
if it was left in the comb.1
Most liquid honey crystallizes
within a few weeks of
extraction.
The tendency of honey to
crystallize depends primarily
on its glucose content and
moisture level.

lyle says:

Thanks for this article. The part about heating multiple times was a help since I will be heating my jar for the second time now.
One part still concerns me:
“Has your honey gone bad? Should you throw it out? The answer is probably not.”
What does bad honey look/smell/taste like? Is it harmful?

Thanks again.

Varouj says:

Thanks for all the information, especially the second paragraph of the main article by Erica Westly where she states the fact that “honey is sugar and some water.” In a way that is rather disappointing. Aren’t there any nutricious and healthful, healing nutrients in honey?

Brian says:

As helpful as the original article was, Anand’s explaination was much more informative and more precise. Thanks Anand.

Sasha says:

I thought it was a great article for someone who just wants casual explanation of why honey crystalizes – That would be me! However, Anand’s write up was even more informative….but I still appreciated the main article. Thanks!

Wayne says:

Great article, and it has nothing to do with Google. I used Yahoo and this was the first result which answered my concerns.

Random.Hold says:

I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
They do taste kind of funny
But it keeps them on my knife

Anon

alex lorenzo says:

How do u cristallize the honey. my honey is now at a liquidy state but i want it to be hard…how can i do this…make the temp. warmer or cooler? please help before my honey expire.:)

Jibby Jib says:

What in de hell? My honey is in a bucket and it gets flies in it. Why do it do that? Somebody said that monkeys make honey and then they poop.

common sense says:

Jibby Jib is an idiot.

HH says:

“Some morning, when you go into your cabinet to grab honey for your toast, you may find something thick and cloudy in the bottle where your liquid gold treat once was.”

That was exactly what happened, except it was one evening, and it was for a salmon steak I just baked. I love to spread some honey on top of hot salmon to make it shiny and sugary but to my dismay, my precious squeezable bottle of liquid gold was not squeezable anymore. That’s why I yahooed and your article came up. Worked like magic. Thanks for the info.

chikadee nutter says:

Hilariuos comments about a very informative article! Bill, from Nov 3, 2008, read Anand Deshmukh’s explanation.Good Luck! Alex Lorenzo, the answer to your question is embedded in Erica Westly’s explanation. Click on the link, Dyce’s method. Good luck too.

Erica, thanks for the info!

Derrick Montgomery says:

I noticing that after purchasing 2 identical jars of honey and putting both together in a cupboard (room temperature)that after several weeks one of them had crystalised and the other had not.
I then decided to find out if one had something in it to cause this to happen,so I bought another jar and put a spoonful of the crystaline honey into the fresh jar and set it with the others.
Sure enough it eventually become fully crystalline,I have since done the same experiment with a furthur 5 jars with the same effect,and the original uncrystalised one is still unaltered and sitting on the same shelf as the others.
I think that Anand Deshmukh’s (above)theory is correct and that the crystal’s I introduced acted as ‘seeds’ for furthur crystalisation.
Like Matt’s wife (no 7 above)I love the crystalline variety if she wants it like this just put a spoonful into the uncrystalline jars and she can produce it for years to come !

kma says:

How long do you put it in hot water? Can I use the water from when I boil eggs and just have the plastic squeeze bottle of honey in the hot water? Will the hot water melt the plastic bottle?

How long will the honey stay uncrystalized after the first time you heat it? I saved 2 quart sized bottles that had crystalized with less than a 1/16″ in both bottles. I’d like to use that honey before I buy new bottles. Will it last at least a week @ 70 degrees before crystalizing once again?

Joyce says:

I purchase honey in the quart size. Originally I had the little honey bear that I refilled from the quart. I noticed after the third or fourth time I refilled the honey bear it begin to thicken but the honey in the quart container stayed clear. I assumed that the exposure to air was the cause of the crystalizing as the bear was being used daily. The last time I bought the quart of honey thinking it didn’t crystize in the quart….I’ve used it from the quart daily. It’s almost half gone and is getting thick and crystalizing. If loosing moisture is the culprit than I should probably go back to the samller container and just keep refilling it. We put it on our oatmeal with a quarter of a teaspoon of cinnamon. Great breakfast…..

Jim says:

I’m just going to buy small containers from now on.

Wolfcastle says:

I am very dissapointed with my jar of honey, I prefer when honey does not crystalize. I will try the warming method. I will also find a recipe for honey, it will discourage me from throwing it away.

mark says:

wonderful article! Thank you!

Linda says:

It answered my question.

Gene Maxim says:

It is my understanding that honey never goes bad. It can, like any food, become contaminated by undesirable sustances. Three thousand year old honey has beeen found in Egyptian tombs. Although solid it was still edible!

A beekeeper told me that a person with allergies can often can find relief by ingesting honey daily from a hive within 50 miles of where they live!

I would not advise heating honey in a plastic container (or any other food for that matter) in a microwave. Plastics contain chemicals that can leach out into foods and this is especially true when heat is applied. The hot water method somewhat reduces this risk but I feel there is still some likely exposure that results.

Marlene says:

Just like Derrick (#22) I have a bottle of crystalized and identical bottles that are still fluid and beautiful. I thought introduction of air had been the cause, but the introduction of “seed” crystals make sense.

I purchased 3 qts of honey because of an exceptional sale, and have stored them all together. Just like with Joyce(#24), the one that is open, remained clear for several weeks. When about half was left, I noticed the lid was getting getting more difficult to remove, and the honey itself was starting to cloud. It was fully crystalized within the week. Seed crystals from the lid would explain the rapid consistency change in the rest of the bottle. I knew it was not a spoilage issue.

I have had honey crystalize before, and I remember it frequently in my childhood. My mother always purchased large containers of honey, and we never finished them before they crystalized. I always associated it with age, thinking that all honey would crystalize at a similar point. I have always purchased smaller amounts before, and had not had the opportunity to compare identical bottles in my cupboard until now.

I do not re-heat honey unless absolutely necessary, since it always goes right back to crystal form. It works well just to spoon into tea as is, or stir into warmed liquid ingredients for recipes. I find crystalized honey has an interesting texture for peanut butter & honey mixtures. The crystalized honey will still flow to the top of the bottle if stored upside down to get the last quantity from the bottle.

I think my next experiment will be when I open bottle #2. I will empty it into several clean sterile jelly jars, then vacuum seal them without the introduction of seed crystals to see if they will all stay clear until opened for use. Who said you can’t have fun with your food?

Ronnie says:

Thanks, gotta love the internet. What in the world did we ever do without it…

simon says:

How can i tell between a good honey and bad honey. This is especially whether the honey I purchase the honey had been added with sugar and water

Don says:

When you heat honey is changes its molecular structure. In Ayurveda, honey that has been heated is considered toxic. Your body can not completely breakdown, utilize or dispose of the honey and some of that will remain in the body as a toxin. Of course none of this has been proven here in the West where we still think that there aren’t any problems with unnatural substances like high fructose corn syrup. Some things are best purchased raw and unpasteurized and honey is one of them.

M Krishnan, Visakhapatnam says:

A very good article and explanation. It clarifies the purity of honey.

Dan says:

Ditto Bill #4, Thank you Anand Deshmukh for # 10

Jerry says:

Thanks for the information. We buy the same brand month after month. Seemed like this bottle got cloudy within about 2 weeks of opening it. Didn’t expect that. Our indoor temp was probably mid 60’s so that might have had something to do with it.

Abby says:

Wow are we glad we found this cool site! Now when my six year old asks his daily barrage of why questions, I have a new place to look! Thanks.

CJ says:

the internet knows everything !!!!

jessie says:

Im doing a science fair project on why honey does that

js says:

The links to honey.com do not work.

Dave says:

If the crystallization is caused by the honey drying out slightly, can’t I just add a small amount of water to it when I heat it to re-liquify it, and thus retard the re-crystallization? Can someone tell me if that would work?

nimblegoat says:

There are some misconceptions here. Don’t throw your honey away! It easily lasts forever, even if you are heating it and cooling it. Do not add water, Dave! One of the reasons honey does not spoil is the high sugar & low water content in it. Just put it in a sunny window in the summer or put the container in 100 to 120 degree water until it is liquid again.

Support your local beekeepers!

ojaw says:

Don’t heat the honey, it kills the goodness.
Crystallization is a sign of healthy honey, embrace the crystals, they taste better!
Local is better, organic is better.
If you can get both in one, that is best.

Jennifer says:

2000 year old jars of honey were found in Egyptian tombs and it was still edible! I don’t think you need to throw your honey away.

serena says:

HI PEOPLE, THIS IS A VERY STRANGE QUESTION, I RECENTLY BOUGHT A JAR OF GALE’S HONEY AND AFTER A FEW DAYS I MADE SOME TOAST AND SPREAD IT ON AND WENT TO EAT IT AND IT STANK OF URINE. I ALMOST WAS SICK. CAN ANYBODY EXPLAIN IF THIS IS NORMAL OR IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE ACTUAL PRODUCT…IT WAS SO OFF PUTTING I PUT IT BACK IN CUPBOARD THEN TODAY MY SON CAME IN MOANING THAT THE HONEY SMELT OF URINE…NOT A PLEASANT ODOUR..

Gary in NYC says:

Great article and thanks to Anand (https://scienceline.org/2007/04/ask-westly-crystallizedhoney/#comment-2553) for his more detailed explanation.

I would like to add that warming up honey will not harm it. Boiling it will probably neutralize a lot of the nutritional benefits. So, it’s best to put the crystallized honey into a glass jar (if not already in one), and submerge this in very hot water (NOTE–make sure the jar is at least room temperature, to avoid cracking from the rapid temperature change). The warming effect will gradually turn the crystals back into liquid form. Do this until ALL of the crystals appear to be gone. Clean the rim of the jar and the lid, so that no lingering crystals may plunge into the honey (and be a catalyst for crystallization again).

Also, you should be able to consume the honey after this first time warming. If you buy honey in large quantities and can’t use it up before crystallization sets in, then separate it into a couple of containers and freeze one of them. It’s true–you can freeze honey and it won’t turn into a hard block of ice. It will thicken like taffy, but it’ll liquefy once brought back to room temperature.

Connie Barb. says:

I bought 4 tubs of honey from a home bee keeper and i put some in a small dispenser,it was fine for about 3 weeks but now it has crystallized,my home is warm because I have ducted heating but it hasn’t helped,where can i keep it to stay liquid?
Thanks reg.Connie.

1adybug says:

Answer our questions about the cause of crystalization in honey and more.
Thanks!

Jen says:

Glad I found this article. I bought a $12 bottle of honey from a local farm recently, and it clouded up with a week! Although it’s no longer pretty to look like, it melted down nicely on my waffles, and still tastes great. I’m so glad I found this article before jumping the gun and throwing it away. Thanks again!

audrey hills says:

Thanks! you really helped me with my science fair project

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