The Science Behind Honeyâ€™s Eternal Shelf Life
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So why does one sugar solution spoil, while another lasts indefinitely? Enter bees.
â€śBees are magical,â€ť Harris jokes.Â But there is certainly a special alchemy that goes into honey. Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in waterâ€“anywhere from 60-80 percent, by Harrisâ€™ estimate. But through the process of making honey, the bees play a large part in removing much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out the nectar. On top of behavior, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach also plays a large part in honeyâ€™s resilience. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs calledÂ glucose oxidaseÂ (PDF). When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey, this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. â€śThen,â€ť Harris explains, â€śhydrogen peroxide is the next thing that goes into work against all these other bad things that could possibly grow.â€ť
For this reason, honey has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy. Because itâ€™s so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds.Â The earliest recorded use of honey for medicinal purposesÂ comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which state that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions. The ancient EgyptiansÂ used medicinal honey regularly, making ointments to treat skin and eye diseases. â€śHoney was used to cover a wound or a burn or a slash, or something like that, because nothing could grow on it â€“ so it was a natural bandage,â€ť Harris explains.
Whatâ€™s more, when honey isnâ€™t sealed in a jar, itÂ sucks in moisture. â€śWhile itâ€™s drawing water out of the wound, which is how it might get infected, itâ€™s letting off this very minute amount of hydrogen peroxide. The amount of hydrogen peroxide comes off of honey is exactly what we needâ€“itâ€™s so small and so minute that it actually promotes healing.â€ť
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Bees are magical:
A jar of honeyâ€™s seal, it turns out, is the final factor thatâ€™s key to honeyâ€™s long shelf life, as exemplified by the storied millennia-old Egyptian specimens. While honey is certainly aÂ super-food, it isnâ€™t supernaturalâ€“if you leave it out, unsealed in a humid environment, it will spoil. As Harris explains, â€ť As long as the lid stays on it and no water is added to it, honey will not go bad. As soon as you add water to it, it may go bad. Or if you open the lid, it may get more water in it and it may go bad.â€ť
So if youâ€™re interested in keeping honey for hundreds of years, do what the bees do andÂ keep it sealedâ€“a hard thing to do with this delicious treat!