How much do you normally pay for a jar of honey? $4? $5? Maybe $10, if it’s organic honey?
What if you picked up a jar of honey that cost $25, or $50, or even more? Chances are you’d promptly put it back on the shelf, or say to yourself “This had better be some pretty exceptional honey!”
Meet manuka honey, the superfood of honeys.
This isn’t the light amber, gooey stuff you pick up at the supermarket. It has a thick, spreadable consistency because unlike other types of honey, manuka doesn’t remain in standard liquid form at room temperature. Its natural state is fine, stable crystals; if you want to loosen it up a bit, you can jiggle the jar, but it will never be the type of honey that can be squeezed out of a honey bear.
Manuka honey is best known for its healing properties, unparalleled among honey varietals. But it also tastes good and can be used for a wide range of applications in the kitchen.
Here’s a deeper dive on this very unique honey.
What Makes Manuka Honey So Different – And So Expensive
Manuka honey is relatively rare, because not a lot of it is produced. Although it’s believed the Manuka bush (leptospermum scoparium) was originally Australian, it grows primarily in New Zealand where most of this honey is produced for sale. Nectar from the Manuka plant is similar to that gathered from the Kanuka plant, which is also sold as Makuna honey because the two are almost indistinguishable. (In Australia, it’s sold as Tea Tree honey; Manuka was the name given to the bush by the Maori people centuries ago.)
The facts that the plant is rare and that the honey has to come from New Zealand are only two of the reasons for the astronomical cost of Manuka honey. The other is that the Manuka often grows in very remote areas and its flowers, which are extremely sensitive to weather conditions, are often open for only 12-14 days per year. So there are extremely limited amounts of this honey gathered and produced by honey bees, and companies sometimes have to use helicopters to harvest honeycomb from hives containing the honey.
The Qualities of Manuka Honey
Manuka honey has a distinctive and interesting color, sometimes tan and sometimes dark brown. It has a rich and somewhat sweet flavor, often described as earthy with tinges of eucalyptus and herbs, and an aftertaste that can be slightly bitter. Because of its strong taste, Manuka honey can be paired with any number of pungent cheeses or used as a delicious ingredient in marinades for meat; it can also be used to sweeten tea or spread on bread. But because of its thickness, don’t expect to be able to drizzle it on ice cream or yogurt.
The natural sugar content and number of carbohydrates in Manuka honey is similar to that of other varieties of honey, and since it’s usually sold in raw form, it contains the same small amount of minerals and vitamins contained in other varietals. So it’s not a food which is nutritionally beneficial when eaten in large amounts. The health benefits of Manuka honey, however, are unmatched by any other type of honey – and the compounds responsible for those Manuka honey benefits can actually be measured and quantified.
The Unique Manuka Factor
New Zealanders in remote areas had been using Manuka honey to treat wounds and settle stomachs for quite some time, but a research professor at one of the nation’s universities was able to document the effectiveness of Manuka. Nearly all honeys have some antibacterial properties, largely because they produce hydrogen peroxide. But Dr. Peter Molan discovered a different anti-microbial in Manuka honey, which was responsible for its greater anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
Molan didn’t know exactly what that anti-microbial was. So he named it UMF, standing for Unique Manuka Factor, and he developed a test and grading system to measure the UMF in each sample of Manuka honey. That test is still used today by the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association of honey producers (the successor to the Active Manuka Honey Association, or AMHA, originally founded by Molan).
Only New Zealand Manuka honey producers who belong to the Association are able to label their honey with its distinct UMF rating, which usually ranges from 10+ to 40+. The higher the honey’s rating, the greater its antibacterial activity. The Association can also certify that honey is actually Manuka honey, testing for the naturally occurring chemical leptosperin which is only found in Manuka plants.
It was later discovered that the “unique factor” was methylglyoxal (MGO), a compound found in most honey, chocolate and other foods – but in much higher amounts in Manuka honey. That’s because Manuka nectar is rich in dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a precursor chemical of MGO. For a reason that’s still not fully understood, though, the levels of MGO don’t correlate directly with the honey’s antibacterial properties and antimicrobial activity. So research continues, and Molan has come up with a new testing standard (the Molan Gold Standard) that incorporates factors other than MGO levels.
In any event, Manuka honey is still largely sold – and priced – based on its UMF rating. And the honey’s prices are largely justified by its health benefits.
Health Benefits of Manuka Honey
You already know enough to understand the greatest benefits of Manuka honey: its amazing power to aid wound healing and prevent infection. Honey has been used for wound care since ancient times, but a recent study at the University of Sydney has once again confirmed that Manuka is far superior to any other variety in its healing properties. (1)
Wounds treated with Manuka honey with UMF ratings of 20+ showed the greatest improvement over the fastest periods of time, and were resistant to infections. Manuka has even been shown to decrease the risk of the problematic staph infection MRSA and clostridium difficile, another infection often spread in hospitals. (2)
That’s far from the only benefit, however. Both health care professionals and alternative medicine practitioners understand the value of using Manuka honey for a wide range of medical issues.
- The MGO in Manuka honey is effective in treating minor cuts and wounds, because of its antibacterial and antiviral properties. The FDA has even approved the sale of bandages that have been infused with Manuka honey.
- Manuka honey applied topically is believed to reduce the irritation and inflammation of acne and eczema, and it shows promise for other skin care applications. Its microbial properties have also been shown to successfully treat gingivitis and reduce dental plaque. (3)
- As with many varieties of raw honey, both the digestive and immune systems can benefit from the ingestion of Manuka honey, with reported benefits such as easing IBS symptoms and preventing gastric ulcers. It also helps with sore throats.
- Manuka honey shows promise in many other areas which are still being studied, including the treatment of cystic fibrosis, lowering cholesterol, treating diabetes and even helping to reduce the growth of tumors.