You’ve probably heard of manuka honey by now, but you may still be wondering what the big deal is? What makes it so different from regular honey? Doesn’t it only come from New Zealand? Why does it cost more than table honey? What do you even use it for? Well I have good news for you, you are about to find out!
The origin of Manuka
Manuka honey comes from the leptospermum scoparium tree, a shrub that is native to both Australia and New Zealand. ‘Manuka’ is the name the Maori peoples of New Zealand have given the tree and its honey has been used in the medicinal practices of those peoples and the First Nation peoples of Australia for centuries. When the European honeybee was introduced to Australia in the early 1800’s and honey production became an agricultural practice, the darker more flavourful manuka honey made by the bees was fed back to them as people preferred the lighter flavour profiles of eucalyptus or clover honey. However, as honey was still being used for medicinal purposes, it became known that manuka honey had more success than others.
Eventually, in the 1980’s an initial clinical study confirmed that honey made from the leptospermum scoparium tree had significant antibacterial effects when compared to other honeys. Since then, much research has been conducted on the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects of manuka honey and the benefit it can have in applications such as wound care, gut health and throat/bronchial complications.
While New Zealand poured money into its manuka research and it became a growth industry Australia had yet to conduct much investigation into its own sources of leptospermum honey. Fortunately, this has now changed. A key study in 2016 by Cokcetin et. al. found that Australia is home to 83 species of leptospermum, of which many, produce manuka honey that is at least equal in quality and strength to those honeys produced by NZ, and in fact, in some cases even greater.
Manuka plants typically flower only once a year for up to 2-3 weeks only. The amount, quality and strength of the honey for that season depends on all kinds of factors including the weather, available water, the health of the manuka, the health of the bees, any environmental stressors and the capability of the beekeeper.
The magic of MGO
All honey has antibacterial properties – yes, even that pale yellow liquid in a squeezy bear has a low level of fighting power – but it is MGO (methylglyoxal) that is unique to manuka honey and is responsible for its clinically proven benefits. It is measured in parts per million and is usually shown on the front of the package to denote the strength of the honey. Most honey is not considered manuka without at least 30mg of MGO, but the scale can go as high as 1000mg of MGO. The level of MGO you should look for depends on the benefits you are expecting and the flavour profile you are looking for. Typically, the higher the MGO the more herbal and earthy the honey will taste but this is just a general rule. Colour, flavour and texture are NOT good indicators at all for quality of manuka honey (unless of course you are a professional beekeeper or producer and are highly attuned to these factors, but even then, they are only used as a guide).
To truly be sure of the level of MGO in a honey it needs to undergo a specific testing process (which I can explain in further detail in another blog post if you’d like!) that considers multiple factors that can impact a honey’s MGO value. These factors are also impacted by environmental conditions such as temperature, so it is important to store and pack manuka honey with particular care and attention to temperature controls.
These testing and handling procedures, the variability of seasonal factors and the limited flowering season means the cost to produce genuine manuka honey is much higher than table honey while the yield for the effort is much lower and that is why it fetches premium prices. Its not just a ‘marketing thing’!
More and more studies are being conducted in clinical settings focused on the potential of MGO and how it may contribute to modern medicine endeavors to combat the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Studies by Cooper et. al. (2010) and Blair et. al. (2009) show that common pathogens in wound care are inhibited by MGO concentrations and are also unable to mutate and develop a resistance to the MGO in the same way as they do other antibiotic agents. MGO has also demonstrated effectiveness against bacterial overgrowth in the gut (and we all know a healthy gut is paramount to good physical and mental health in general) and for soothing sore throats and calming coughs.
And there you have it! Now you know what makes manuka honey so special! It can seem like a bit of an investment on the face of it, but once I understood all the potential health benefits it had to offer me and decided to give it a go, I couldn't go without it. For me, I don’t feel even the least bit guilty when I use it to sweeten my morning smoothie because I know what it’s doing for my gut and I always have it on standby when that throat scratch hits so I can nip it in the bud before it becomes a real issue, and if it ever does, the hot water, lemon and manuka tea is a godsend.
Let me know if this convinced you to give it a try or if you’re already a convert! If you would like to know more about the testing procedures and what makes an authentic manuka honey, let me know in the comments.
Cokcetin, N. N., M. Pappalardo, L. T. Campbell, P. Brooks, D. A. Carter, S. E. Blair, and E. J. Harry. "The Antibacterial Activity of Australian Leptospermum Honey Correlates with Methylglyoxal Levels." PLoS ONE 11.12 (2016): E0167780.
Cooper, R., A. Jenkins, L. Henriques, F. Duggan, and M. Burton. "Absence of Bacterial Resistance to Medical-grade Manuka Honey." European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases 29.10 (2010): 1237-241.
Blair, S., N. Cokcetin, E. Harry, and D. Carter. "The Unusual Antibacterial Activity of Medical-grade Leptospermum Honey: Antibacterial Spectrum, Resistance and Transcriptome Analysis." European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases 28.10 (2009): 1199-208.