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Honey's sucrose chains play musical chairs

Watch out for fermentation

Dear Matt: Why does my honey crystallize? Even after I nuke it to make it liquid again, the crystals remain. Could you shed some light on this annoying phenomenon? — Sidhe, North Park

Blame it on the needs of bees. They take very dilute sucrose (nectar), mix in some bee spit, pump it in and out of their snouts a few times, and finally squirt it into a cell in the hive. All this dehydrates the solution to raise its sugar content to about 50 percent, a point at which microbes can’t grow on the tasty goo and spoil the bees’ stored food. Bees who never got their high school diplomas are given career slots as honey fanners. They stand around and beat their wings, which generates a breeze, which speeds up the evaporation.

In response, the honey’s big sucrose chains begin a game of molecular musical chairs, changing to the simpler structures of fructose and glucose. More of those molecules can cram into a given volume of water. This benefits the bees because that stores more food energy in a given volume of honey.

Unfortunately for us, the 38 percent fructose, 31 percent glucose, and 17 percent water structure of cured honey is just about the saturation point for glucose — the point at which the floating molecules yearn to cling together into crystallized solids. This happens eventually to all liquid honeys, but it’s speeded up at room temperatures. But raise the temp of the gritty honey (by nuking it, for example), and you make the glucose molecules more water-soluble, so the honey’s liquefied again. But once it cools, you’re back where you started.

One caveat. When the glucose crystallizes, that raises the relative water content of the honey and makes it a nicer place for yeasts and molds to live. Basically, crystallization will cause fermentation, the conversion of sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Of course, you can always stow all that bad honey in the basement for a while, then order in lots of pizzas and throw a party.

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Dear Matt: Why does my honey crystallize? Even after I nuke it to make it liquid again, the crystals remain. Could you shed some light on this annoying phenomenon? — Sidhe, North Park

Blame it on the needs of bees. They take very dilute sucrose (nectar), mix in some bee spit, pump it in and out of their snouts a few times, and finally squirt it into a cell in the hive. All this dehydrates the solution to raise its sugar content to about 50 percent, a point at which microbes can’t grow on the tasty goo and spoil the bees’ stored food. Bees who never got their high school diplomas are given career slots as honey fanners. They stand around and beat their wings, which generates a breeze, which speeds up the evaporation.

In response, the honey’s big sucrose chains begin a game of molecular musical chairs, changing to the simpler structures of fructose and glucose. More of those molecules can cram into a given volume of water. This benefits the bees because that stores more food energy in a given volume of honey.

Unfortunately for us, the 38 percent fructose, 31 percent glucose, and 17 percent water structure of cured honey is just about the saturation point for glucose — the point at which the floating molecules yearn to cling together into crystallized solids. This happens eventually to all liquid honeys, but it’s speeded up at room temperatures. But raise the temp of the gritty honey (by nuking it, for example), and you make the glucose molecules more water-soluble, so the honey’s liquefied again. But once it cools, you’re back where you started.

One caveat. When the glucose crystallizes, that raises the relative water content of the honey and makes it a nicer place for yeasts and molds to live. Basically, crystallization will cause fermentation, the conversion of sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Of course, you can always stow all that bad honey in the basement for a while, then order in lots of pizzas and throw a party.

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