Whether you’ve heard about it within the beekeeping community or seen “raw honey” and “processed honey” on bottles, you may be left wondering, “What is the difference between raw and processed honey?” In a nutshell – LOTS! In this blog, we will cover the basics of honey and what makes processed honey different than raw honey.
Overview of Honey
First, what is honey? Honey is almost a perfect food as created by honeybees. Bees make honey by collecting nectar from flowers. The nectar contains a compound sugar called sucrose, the same sugar that is in white table sugar.
During the collection process the bees mix this sugar (sucrose) with an enzyme called invertase. The enzyme, invertase breaks down the sucrose into two simple sugars – glucose and fructose. This nectar also contains various enzymes, amino acids, and various wild yeasts that are additional components of the final honey compound. The bees store the ‘wet’ nectar in cells where the inversion process continues. At this point the honey is high in moisture. Due to the presence of wild yeasts, the honey can ferment at this stage. To prevent this from occurring, the bees dry the nectar down to a moisture content between 15 to 18.5%.
Once the moisture content is below 18.5%, the yeasts are unable to cause fermentation. At this point the honey is ‘ripe’, and the bees will cap the cell over with wax. At this point, we have a product that contains nutrients and is at its best flavor, making it a healthy food product.
As beekeepers, we harvest honey at this point. We may have some cells that aren’t capped yet so we need to test our honey when we extract it to ensure that the moisture content is below 18.5%. We will uncap the frames, extract the honey, strain it to remove any wax, bee parts, etc., and gently heat it to no more than 110°F.
Once we have extracted and heated the honey, we have a clean product containing all of its pollen, amino acids, yeasts, and enzymes. Bacteria is not a concern as honey is so low in moisture and is so acidic (yes, acidic!) that bacteria cannot survive in it.
So, what’s the problem? Crystallization! Almost every type of honey will eventually crystallize. The rate at which a honey will crystallize is directly related to the glucose/fructose ratio of that honey. The higher the ratio of glucose, the faster the honey will crystallize. Crystallized or ‘hard’ honey is still the same good honey, it’s just no longer liquid and doesn’t look as attractive as a jar of liquid honey does. Generally, people value the appearance of a product over its quality. This is what promotes the process of creating processed honey.
If honey is in a glass jar the jar can be gently heated in a warm water bath to reliquefy it.
Raw honey contains pollen and possibly other tiny solids that are natural in the production of honey. These particlesact as ‘starter crystals’,providing something for the sugars to start crystallizing around. Additionally, if the honey was harvested before the bees dried it to the correct moisture content (above 18.5%), it has the potential to ferment as well.
For honey destined for store shelves, the time between bottling and a customer purchasing the honey could be many months. That is plenty of time for either crystallization or fermentation to occur. The solution to this is to process the honey further. Honey destined for store shelves is processed by heating and filtering. First the honey is flash pasteurized. It is quickly brought to 160°F which kills all the wild yeasts and denatures the amino acids and enzymes. It is then put through a filter to remove all the pollen. This filter is so fine that it required pressure to force the honey through it.
The result is a honey product whose health benefits have been reduced or removed, and the taste profile altered to extend the shelf life of the product. After this process, the honey is now a product that can sit on a store shelf with no risk of crystallization or fermentation.
In short, the difference between raw honey and processed honey is the appearance and shelf life. Raw honey will include pollen and other tiny solids that add to its flavor but will not be as clear and will crystallize more quickly than processed honey. Conversely, processed honey will have these pollen and natural additives filtered out to gain a clearer product that extends the shelf life without crystallization. To see the difference for yourself, purchase raw honey from your local beekeeper and processed honey from a store. Do a taste test for yourself to see which you prefer and enjoy the sweet process along the way.