What has a slightly bitter taste, smells like damp earth, and costs more than a bottle of champagne?
A 500g jar of manuka honey. At $60, the jar we picked up from the supermarket was $5 more than a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck and $8 more than Veuve Clicquot.
Not all manuka honey is this expensive. Some blended varieties cost less than $10. But you pay a premium for products that claim to be purer. Why the high price?
Manuka honey can contain an unusual type of antibacterial activity at levels not found in other kinds of honey.
This antibacterial activity has only been demonstrated in medical-grade honey used as a topical antiseptic. There’s no hard evidence the honey has any antibacterial effect when eaten. But that hasn’t dulled the health hype.
The bee-wildering situation
Competition for the manuka-honey dollar has led to a raft of label claims. Common claims refer to the antibacterial activity of manuka honey.
These often take the form of a grading system: “UMF Active 10+”, “Certified NPA Manuka 15+”, “Active 15+”, and so on.
Typically, the higher the number within each grading system, the higher the claimed level of antibacterial activity – and the higher the price.
Manuka honey exports are priced according to their methylglyoxal content.
Methylglyoxal is thought to be the major contributor to manuka honey’s non-peroxide antibacterial activity (see “What’s in a name?”).
Last season, bulk prices for honey with high levels of the compound were up to $60 per kg. Honey with low levels was one-third the price.
Methylglyoxal levels are easy to test. But the levels fluctuate over the honey’s shelf life – which means there’s no set amount upon which to pin a classification.
To make matters worse, there are reports honey in the jar doesn’t always live up to the label’s claims.
In June, a UK trade magazine called The Grocer published the results of a lab test of seven randomly selected jars of manuka honey. Five failed to meet their claimed levels of antibacterial activity.
The Grocer’s investigation generated negative publicity of manuka honey. It’s not the first time the honey has encountered bad press.
Last year, the UK’s Food Standards Agency warned some ordinary honey might have been falsely sold as manuka honey.
So, what exactly is Manuka Honey?
Manuka Honey is produced by the Manuka bush from nectar taken from its flowers. There are two varieties of Manuka Honey: organic (Leptospermum scoparium), collected directly from its flowers, and commercial-grade (manuka nectar), which is processed to remove any contaminants or anything that may alter its properties. Traditionally, the bees gather the Manuka bush’s nectar by hand since there are no facilities available to harvest honey from this bush. Processing the honey makes it a bit more popular today, but many people still prefer to collect it by hand.
Manuka Honey is a high-quality trademark that identifies specific honey that originated from New Zealand. Manuka Honey is a polysaccharide that has many superior characteristics compared to other honey products. Manuka Honey was used for centuries to treat skin conditions including dry skin, dermatitis, eczema, burns, rashes, itching, blisters, stings, bites, and more. In New Zealand, the specialty of Manuka Honey is its natural antibacterial activity. The term manuka refers to the genus of Maurus that includes bees and manganese.
The nectar of Manuka flowers was first discovered by the bees in the 1800s because it held antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, and nutritional properties new to science. Manuka Honey has been shown to have beneficial effects on human health, skin, blood flow, wounds, the digestive system, and more. Manuka Honey, made from the nectar gathered by bees from the Manuka bush, has been used for thousands of years to treat all sorts of ailments and has recently been proven to increase energy levels, promote weight loss, and can even heal cancer cells. Manuka Honey, as you can see, has a lot of potentials.
Manuka Honey is derived from the nectar from the Maurus tree, Leptospermum polysperma. There is currently no conclusive scientific evidence that supports the use of manuka honey as a dietary or medicinal product; however, the term manuka honey has been used successfully for decades as an effective sweetening agent in many household recipes. The common term manuka refers to the Manuka Honey with its distinctive yellow color. Still, this honey may also be known by the alternative name, “mono-fermented”, because of its unique flavor. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the natural, unadulterated, raw form of manuka honey demonstrates significant antibacterial activity.
It’s pretty obvious that Manuka Honey has a lot of potentials, right? Well, it also has some interesting antibacterial properties. Manuka Honey is commonly used in antifungal and antibacterial soaps for its natural antibacterial attributes. It’s been proven that Manuka Honey increases the effect of certain antifungal drugs, such as terbinafine and amphotericin B; reduces the toxic effects of staphylococci and streptococci, and kills certain kinds of mold and fungi. This means that Manuka Honey could be used as an effective and affordable treatment for a whole variety of different health conditions.
Natural, unadulterated, raw honey from Manuka Honey exhibits an impressive assortment of antioxidant characteristics comparable to the most highly concentrated and premium varieties of honey available. This honey is an ideal choice for enhancing the flavor of soups, stews, and salads. You will find that this raw form of honey enhances foods’ flavor, particularly those that are highly acidic in nature, such as tomatoes, lemon juice, pickles, and hot dogs. Although manuka honey is very tasty when used in raw foods or mixed with other ingredients, the high smoke point, thermo-genesis, genesis, and chemical stability of honey from Manuka Honey make it a superior choice for cooking and baking and a favored choice for producing highly concentrated multi-nutritional supplements.
What can and can’t be said
Enter NZ’s Ministry for Primary Industries. In July, it released a voluntary inter labeling guide to iron out concerns about manuka honey’s authenticity.
The guide sets out what statements can and can’t be made on a jar of manuka honey. It’s mostly a summary of the requirements that already exist in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
Under the Code, therapeutic claims aren’t allowed on food labels. A therapeutic claim is any reference to the prevention, diagnosis, cure, or alleviation of a disease, disorder, or condition.
That’s a problem for honey producers who’ve boasted about manuka honey’s antibacterial activity on their labels.
Statements and grading systems associated with antibacterial activity are therapeutic claims. The ministry specifies references to the following properties are unacceptable:
- peroxide activity
- non-peroxide activity
- total activity
- antibacterial activity
These references are also considered misleading because manuka honey has no proven antibacterial effect when eaten.
The Unique Manuka Factor grading system (UMF) has been impacted by the guide.
This system – which ranges from UMF 5+ to UMF 25+ – measures the honey’s antibacterial activity when compared with phenol (an antiseptic).
As such, it’s a therapeutic claim.
The Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association is fast-tracking changes to its system.
The association’s John Rawcliffe says numeric grades will remain on UMF-branded honey, but they’ll no longer refer to the honey’s antibacterial activity.
Instead, they’ll measure its “quality” and “purity”. How the numbers will relate to these two properties is still being determined.
Rawcliffe argues, “the whole industry has a fair amount of work to do to comply with these guidelines. It’s not just the association’s members. It’s everyone that’s using terms like ‘active’, ‘bioactive’ and ‘methylglyoxal’ in [an antibacterial] context”.
An ongoing struggle
Grading systems that measure methylglyoxal will still be allowed on honey labels as long as they’re not used to imply an antibacterial effect.
However, the ministry has conceded methylglyoxal levels are a reasonably weak method for identifying manuka honey.
Despite having analyzed the data associated with 11,000 honey samples, the ministry is struggling to develop a foolproof means of identifying manuka honey – although it has come up with broad manuka-honey characteristics.
The honey should have a slightly bitter, mineral flavor, the aroma of damp earth and heather, and a light amber or darker color among other properties.
The ministry has several projects to investigating a better means of identifying the honey. It has spent $250,000 on the projects, and more will be spent. New findings will be added to the interim labeling guide when they become available.
There’s no hard evidence manuka honey has proven antibacterial benefits when eaten.
That’s something to keep in mind when you’re comparing a jar of expensive “15+” manuka honey with a cheaper brand.
While the interim labeling guide is welcome, many claims on jars of manuka honey were already prohibited under the Food Standards Code. Why were they allowed to spread?
Until there’s a standardized test for manuka honey, consumers risk paying a premium for products that don’t stack up.
Authentic Manuka Honey
Last update on 2021-03-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API