The Chemistry Of Honey

Today we will explore the chemical properties of Honey. If you want to read an overview of Honey, see our other article. “What is Honey?“. 

Honey get’s its distinctive color, taste, and aroma from the nectar collected. The minerals, vitamins, acids, enzymes, and aroma components remain unchanged during the conversion process from nectar to Honey. These vital components make up less than 3% of Honey, but they contribute to what makes Honey so unique.

Nectar contains three different types of sugars, namely Sucrose (C12H22O11), Glucose (C6H12O6), and Fructose (same as Glucose but with a different molecular structure). Each nectar has a wide range of distributions of these three sugars. However, most nectars are primarily composed of Sucrose. Even though all plants use photosynthesis to convert water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and light (in the form of photons) into sugars and oxygen (O2). The chemical process of the conversion into sugars is different in some plants.

Even though cane sugar(Sucrose) and nectar(a distribution of 3 different sugars but primarily Sucrose) contain Sucrose. The Sucrose produced is not identical due to the photosynthesis pathway used, namely for cane sugar (C4) and nectar (C3). They differ in the C-isotope of Carbon-12 (12C) for C3 and Carbon-13 (13C) for C4. For an article that examines if sugar syrup can be turned into Honey by honey bees, see our other article, “Can Honey Bee’s Turn Sugar Syrup Into Honey?“.

Cut comb honey isolated on white background

Since Honey is mainly Glucose and Fructose, the honey bees create an enzyme, sucrase, produced in the honey bees hypopharyngeal glands, and mix this with the nectar. This enzyme creates a chemical reaction that converts the sucrose(C12H22O11) + water(H20) into Glucose(C6H12O6) + Fructose(C6H12O6).

Of course, the chemical process does not stop there; honey bees add another enzyme, glucose oxidase, which will break the Glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide(H2O2).

Glucose is less stable and it’s molecules will reform into more complex sugars within Honey. The total sugar content in Honey is 99.5%. The sugars in Honey after the chemical process and molecule breakdowns are Fructose (38.2%), Glucose (31.3%), Sucrose (1.3% – leftover after enzyme breakdown), Maltose and other reducing disaccharides(7.3%), and Trisaccharides and other carbohydrates(4.2%) – (Composition Of American Honey’s 1962)

Honey has been reported to contain more than 180 substances, and about 600 compounds have been characterized in different kinds of Honey. – (Chemical composition and uses of Honey).

Honey is perfectly processed by the honey bees. Humans and animals do not even need to process the six-carbon sugars of Honey; further, it’s perfectly absorbed directly by the digestive tract. This cannot be said for other plant sugars such as cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup, etc.

This article is only scratching the surface of the complexities of Honey. Even with all of humanity’s scientific achievements, Honey cannot be created in a lab; perhaps it never will be able to. Honey is the sole responsibility of the humble honey bee, and their achievements bring praise to their designer. It’s truly incredible food.

Other Reading

  1. Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (Dewey M. Caron) chapter 16

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