Honey is sweet, loved and available around the world, yet we actually know relatively little about it. By turning to science we can help explain a few of the reasons behind its success.
Many might believe they know everything about honey. It’s produced by bees, which feed on nectar that they then store in honey sacs. It’s here, thanks to an enzyme called invertase, that the magic happens: the sucrose in the nectar is converted into glucose and fructose by the enzyme invertase. At this point, the mixture is regurgitated into the hive, then sucked back up and regurgitated again, and so on, and then left to dehydrate.
After about 36 days, the honey is ready, with a moisture content that varies between 16 and 20%.
An abundance of fructose and glucose
All this process tells us, therefore, is that honey is nothing more than a concentrated mixture of fructose and glucose. Depending on the type of nectar and bees, other sugars such as maltose, maltulose and isomaltose can be added to these two in much smaller quantities.
The secret in an enzyme
In fact, honey is largely composed of only two molecules: fructose, which accounts for about 38% and glucose which accounts for 30%. And that’s why it’s almost impossible to distinguish the taste of a high fructose corn syrup from honey.
By the same principle, invert sugar, which is used a lot in pastry, also has a similar taste: it’s obtained by using the enzyme invertase with the sucrose extracted from beet and sugar cane, forming mixtures of fructose and glucose.
The composition of honey is not only reflected in its flavour, but also in some characteristics that have made it such a mysterious food for a long time. The main one being: how does honey keep for so long? And by ‘very long’ we mean thousands of years: jars containing perfectly preserved honey have been found in tombs dating back to Ancient Egypt. To unravel the mystery, it must first be noted that sugar, salt and rice are among the long-life foods that keep honey company in this respect. Unlike these, however, honey remains in its original, fluid form and retains all its nutritional properties, even after thousands of years.
Honey as an antibacterial
So, on the one hand, the fact that honey contains very little water certainly counts: the microorganisms, responsible for perishability, cannot live with so little water. Honey also has an acidic pH, between 5 and 5.5, which is inhospitable to most bacteria.
Finally, there is a last secret, revealed by science, which makes honey almost immortal. When you have to disinfect a wound, what do you use? Oxygenated water, whether it’s called Hydrogen peroxide, or not, which has the ability to kill bacteria. You should also know that there is an enzyme in honey called glucose oxidase: inactive in pure honey, in the presence of atmospheric oxygen, that is, when it is collected from the hive, it produces a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. Honey, therefore, naturally contains hydrogen peroxide, which helps to eliminate dangerous microorganisms, or ones that cause it to deteriorate.
This modest presence of hydrogen peroxide, while being absolutely harmless, is also sufficient to eliminate bacteria and is responsible for honey's reputation as an antimicrobial. To the point that it was once used as a preservative. Without exaggerating: holding open a jar of honey will introduce so many air and water molecules that hydrogen peroxide action will be exhausted, and the precious food will spoil.