What makes manuka honey so special?
Manuka honey is high in a compound called methylglyoxal, which is a very strong antibacterial compound that can only be harvested from the manuka tree in New Zealand. This compound (along with varying amounts of other antibacterial compounds) gives manuka honey very strong antibacterial properties. The antibacterial properties of manuka honey is tested and given a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) score depending of the degree of potency, and this is often displayed on the label. Manuka honey is unique in that its antibacterial properties are much higher than other honeys, and it is tested/ standardised for potency and consistency. No other honey gets tested for its antibacterial properties, and it’s this additional stage of testing along with the naturally restrictive production, high demand and premium feel which makes manuka honey so expensive.
Is it worth the money?
Is this reassurance of the potency worth the extra cost? Perhaps not. In 2014 The Grocer tested a number of samples of manuka honey purchased in the UK and found they were all less potent than the label suggests, and some didn’t even have any detectable activity. The Grocer also reported there was misleading use of the term ‘active’, which suggests a certain degree of potency to consumers that may not exist. In addition to this, there are reports from many sources including independent lab tests that some manuka honey sold in the UK is fake, and for every tonne of manuka honey produced, up to 3 tonnes are sold, which suggests a huge amount of mislabelled honey is being sold. These are serious problems, so I’ll look at each on a little more detail:
Manuka honey is less potent than the label – The potency of manuka honey is known decreases over time, so the manufacturer may well test high levels at the point of harvest (which they then print on their label), but by the time a consumer gets round to buying and using it, the potency can be completely lost. The rate of decay will depend on the conditions it is stored in and the time between harvest and use, but seeing as manuka honey must come from New Zealand (probably by boat), you can be sure that any manuka honey you get in the UK won’t be very fresh, and a significant proportion of its potency lost. Loss of potency over time isn’t just an issue manuka honey has – almost all nutrients will degrade over time, and it’s an issue the food industry is very aware of.
What does ‘active’ mean? – The term ‘active’ is not a protected term, and so can be used liberally in marketing. In the context of manuka honey, ‘active’ refers to the antimicrobial activity of the honey, and the use of the term suggests that it is somehow better than generic honey to consumers, but this isn’t necessarily true. All honey is active to some extent, and because the use of the term ‘active’ isn’t protected, it can be used without any evidence of it efficacy. This makes the use of the term meaningless.
Fake manuka honey – Fake honey has been an issue in the UK for a long time, and manuka honey isn’t an exception. In fact, with manuka honey being an expensive niche product that you can often only buy online from unfamiliar brands, dubious and cheap “manuka” honey can be very attractive to ethically flexible retailers.
So real fresh manuka honey is something special, but you will be hard pushed to find such a thing so far from the manuka trees in New Zealand…
Effective alternative to Manuka honey
Manuka honey has been put on such a high pedestal it’s very easy to be beguiled into thinking there is nothing that comes close, but there is. Recently researches at Cardiff University found that some Welsh honey was as potent as manuka honey. This was local and raw honey from an amateur beekeeper who was doing nothing special with his bees. This kind of honey will be fresher and cheaper than manuka honey, and will be quite easy to find at a local farmers market. The potency of honey all depends on the plants that be bees forage. Some plants have extremely high antibacterial compounds (such as manuka trees), others don’t. Manuka is not as unique as you might think in its antibacterial properties, and other plants produce just as powerful compounds.
Manuka honey and raw honey are quite different, and these differences are discusses here, but the key importance for this discussion is that raw honey is not standardised like manuka
is should be. Raw honey will vary in potency from hive to hive depending on what plants the bees foraged, whereas manuka honey should be standardised and have a consistent potency. However, considering the amount of fake manuka honey and the loss of potency over time, it seems like the standardisation is almost meaningless. So the options are you can go for a local raw honey which will have all the benefits of raw honey but to an inconsistent level, or go for an expensive manuka honey which isn’t as fresh and may have lost all its potency…
Real, pure and fresh manuka honey is the golden nectar that earned the title of the most potent honey. However, much of the manuka honey in the UK isn’t fresh and possibly isn’t real or pure. With this in mind, you are much better of popping to farmers market where you can get some fresh raw honey which has all the benefits of raw honey, and may well be as potent an antibacterial agent as manuka.
Image courtesy of Andy Murray.