What is Manuka Honey? (Images + Info)

Written On: by Theo The Beekeeper

Manuka honey has seen much coverage in the media about its health and diet benefits and its different flavor compared to normal honey. Is manuka honey the natural healing wonder that it is marketed to be? We will examine what manuka honey is, where it comes from and whether it has any benefit over normal honey.

Manuka honey is produced by bees that have harvested pollen and nectar primarily from the Manuka tree, Leptospermum scoparium. The Manuka tree is native to New Zealand and parts of Australia. Manuka honey is said to have additional health benefits over other forms of honey.

There is much information available on Manuka honey, and the product carries a certification of its purity, which gives it credibility in the public sphere. The certification of manuka honey and the details distributed about the medical benefits of the honey have increased demand, but is the price warranted?

What’s The Buzz About Manuka Honey?

manuka honey
Manuka honey. Superfood.

If you go to your grocery store and search for Manuka honey, you may struggle to find it, and if you do find it on the shelf, you will be surprised at the price of a small bottle of the honey. Many grocery stores do not offer manuka honey, but you will be able to find it at health food stores or pharmacies.

Many honey producers are skeptical about the claims regarding manuka honey and feel that the hype generated around the product is nothing more than a clever marketing campaign.

We will examine manuka honey and its origins and the claimed health benefits. You will then be able to decide whether manuka honey is worth the cost.

Where Does Manuka Honey Come From?

There are only two places that certified manuka honey originates from, and both countries are part of the natural range of the manuka tree.

The first producers of manuka honey originated in New Zealand, where the plant is a native shrub and grows naturally in the wild. New Zealand created the unique Manuka Factor Honey Association to test manuka honey for authenticity, purity, and health benefit levels.

The bottles of manuka honey produced in New Zealand will have a Unique Manuka Factor or UMF rating. This marking indicates the honey’s purity and indicates that the product was made in New Zealand and has passed all the required tests.

The southern states of Australia also host a habitat suitable for the manuka tree and, consequently, are also a producer of manuka honey. Australia has a similar monitoring body, the Australian Manuka Honey Association or AMHA, which governs the testing and labeling of manuka honey originating from Australia.

What Is Manuka Honey Made From?

manuka flower with bee on it
Honey bee on manuka flower from which manuka honey with medicinal benefits are made with space on the right

When honey bees forage for food, they will seek out sources of pollen and nectar that are close to the colony and that offer a rich source of resources.

Since beekeepers understand this aspect of bee foraging, it is possible to locate beehives in certain locations to produce monofloral honey at certain times of the year.

Monofloral honey is defined by bees gathering pollen and nectar from a single, abundant source and using these resources to produce honey.

While it is not possible to prevent bees from locating and using other resources at the same time, the predominant source will be from the most abundant flowers closest to the beehive. This produces what beekeepers call monofloral honey, where the bulk of the honey produced will be from plants currently flowering in close proximity to the beehive.

Other monofloral honey types are produced in a similar way, so the process is not unique to manuka honey production. Beekeepers move their bee colonies to certain locations at certain times of year to produce sought-after monofloral honey that has distinct flavors and properties.

Bluegum, sunflower, citrus, litchi, and aloe honey are all examples of monofloral honey similar to manuka honey and produced using the same principles of locating the hives close to these plants when they are in bloom.

Producing monofloral honey is often only possible when the plants are prolific. The plants must either be farmed commercially or grow and flower in the wild in abundance at certain locations and seasons.

Based on this principle, it is only possible to produce manuka honey in locations where the manuka tree grows naturally in large numbers or where the manuka tree is cultivated in large numbers.

For manuka honey production, the numbers of manuka trees need to be such that the bees will defer to these plants over others in the area as a source of forage.

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Since the natural habitat of the manuka tree is New Zealand and Australia, it stands to reason that these countries will be the main producers of manuka honey.

Why Are There Different Gradings Of Manuka Honey?

manuka honey in hive
Honey in the jars

Since it is difficult to control the foraging activities of the bees, there is no guarantee that the manuka honey will be exclusively produced from the pollen and nectar of these flowers.

The concentration of the manuka components in the honey will vary depending on several criteria.

  • The number of manuka plants in the area. An area with a low concentration of manuka plants will produce a lower manuka content than an area with a higher population density.
  • The quality of the season. If the flowering season is affected by climatic aspects such as drought, heat, or inclement weather, the monofloral aspect of manuka honey can become adulterated.
  • Availability of other plants in the area flowering at the same time. Other plants that flower simultaneously as manuka trees can attract a large number of the foraging bees, which could dilute the concentration of manuka in the honey production.

The New Zealand and Australian Manuka honey testing authorities came into existence to rate the level of manuka qualities in the honey produced by beekeepers from these regions.

The tested ratings of the honey must be displayed on the label displayed on the bottle of any honey marketed as “Manuka Honey.”

The purpose of the UMF rating system is to ensure that the products being labeled and sold as manuka honey actually contain manuka honey and to verify the origin of the product. This is to protect both the manuka honey producers and the consumer.

The high cost of manuka honey has led to the emergence of a fraudulent manuka honey industry where other honey products are falsely labeled as manuka honey ad sold at genuine manuka honey prices.

The UMF rating given to New Zealand-produced manuka honey will have a UMF number or an MGO number rating on the label. MGO is the measure of Methylglyoxal in the honey, a feature of manuka honey.

The UMF ratings have a corresponding MGO factor, but the quantity of MGO in manuka honey is only one test conducted by UMF-certified honey. UMF graded honey includes testing for up to 6 markers in the honey, including the level of Leptospermum pollen contained in the honey.

UMF Manuka Honey RatingCorresponding MGO RatingUsage
UMF 5+MGO 83+Daily consumption as table honey.
UMF 10+MGO 263+Suitable for skincare
UMF 12+MGO 356+Suitable for skincare with a higher level of potency
UMF 15+MGO  514+Suitable for skincare, including acne treatment – high level of potency
UMF 18+MGO  696+Suitable for wound care and fighting off infection
UMF 20+MGO  829+Suitable for wound care and fighting off infection

The UMF rating will indicate the effectiveness or potency of the manuka honey. The lower the UMF number, the lower the potency of the active ingredients in the manuka honey.

An increase in the UMF rating of manuka honey will generally carry a corresponding increase in the product’s retail price.

Are There Any Health Benefits From Manuka Honey?

We have learned a lot about manuka honey, where it is from, and what plants are used to make the honey, but what are the product’s health benefits?

Honey of all forms has been known to have health benefits from the early days of medical history, so what makes manuka honey more special than the rest?

Most honey has a peroxide activity that helps inhibit bacteria’s growth, which gives honey its antibacterial properties. This results from a slow release of hydrogen peroxide from the honey.

Manuka honey is unique in that it has antibacterial properties that are non-peroxide-based, making it a more effective antibacterial honey.

Manuka honey has been shown to offer the following health benefits.

  • Promote healing for lacerations and scrapes on the skin.
  • Keeping burns moist.
  • Antibacterial function in clearing infections.
  • Aiding and improving digestion.
  • Easing sore throats.
  • Antiviral function using non-peroxide activity.
  • Provides a boost to the immune system.
  • Helps with healing eczema.
  • Provides a natural treatment for acne.
  • A natural source of energy that is more diabetic friendly

While many of these attributes are also available from normal honey, manuka honey’s healing agents are magnified. This is another reason for the UMF grading system. The higher the UMF rating, the stronger the active ingredients and the more effective the manuka honey will treat health issues.

Manuka Honey And Wound Care

Like all other honey, manuka honey is acidic, with a pH that varies between 3.2pH and 4.5pH, which promotes healing due to the acidity preventing the infection from certain bacteria types.

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In addition to the acidity, honey is hygroscopic, which means it draws fluid out of the skin and into itself. This action will draw toxins and impurities from wounds, cuts, and scrapes as well as dehydrate invading bacterial cells in the wound, effectively neutralizing them.

The honey also provides a barrier between the wound and direct air contact, preventing further wound contamination, but still promoting the drying out of the injury due to the hygroscopic action.

Manuka Honey Antiviral Properties

Most forms of honey have an antiviral action due to the peroxide activity of the honey. Honey provides a slow release of hydrogen peroxide, which is infused into the honey by an enzyme from the honeybees at the time of the honey production.

The antiviral and antibacterial components are increased in manuka honey by non-peroxide activity additions to the normal characteristics of normal honey.

The nectar extracted from manuka trees contains a compound called Methylglyoxal or MGO. The MGO from the nectar is retained in the final honey product and imparts the antiviral characteristic to the manuka honey.

The MGO combined with the natural peroxide activity of the honey greatly increases the effectiveness of manuka honey in treating viral and bacterial infections.

Antibacterial Properties Of Manuka Honey

Research is still ongoing into the antibacterial properties of manuka honey, but studies have already shown that manuka honey is effective at treating Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacterial infections.

Studies also show promising results in treating the hospital superbug infections caused by the  Clostridium difficile bacteria. The research shows that manuka honey does not simply kill the bacteria but actively attacks the infection by destroying the bacteria’s protective measures to defend itself.

How Is Manuka Honey Used For Healthcare?

If the ailment is internal, such as a sore throat or a stomach complaint, the honey must be ingested to soothe and promote healing of the condition.

Half a tablespoon or one full tablespoon of manuka honey can be eaten to soothe sore throats. You could also dissolve the honey in a tea where the heat will add to the soothing effect on the throat.

A tablespoon or two of manuka honey daily can help ease symptoms of digestive issues. The honey can be eaten from a spoon or included in your diet by spreading it on your morning toast or adding it to your breakfast cereal.

Manuka honey can be applied topically on the skin for cuts and scrapes. Bandages infused with manuka honey can be purchased from medical supply stores.

Acne can be treated with a manuka honey face mask, and eczema sufferers can find relief with an ointment made from beeswax, olive oil, and manuka honey in equal parts. The UMF rating of the manuka honey used will determine how effective it will treat your ailment.

As with any natural remedy, you should always consult your healthcare professional before attempting a new treatment for your ailment at home.

Research is still ongoing regarding the healthcare applications of manuka honey, which may reveal further benefits of the product.

Why Is Manuka Honey So Expensive?

Manuka honey is substantially more expensive than any other honey you will see on your supermarket or pharmacy shelves. There are several reasons that the price for this particular honey is so high.

Limited Manuka Honey Production

The first reason is the quantity of manuka honey produced. The manuka tree only flowers for a brief 2 to 6-week period. This is a limited window in which to put the bees to work to gather the manuka pollen and nectar.

The hives must be prepared before the manuka nectar flow to ensure that honey crops from other sources are not mixed in with the honey produced during the manuka flowering season.

The blooming of the manuka trees can be limited or disturbed by inclement weather, which may discourage the plants from producing large quantities of blossoms. This interference by the weather can impact the yield of manuka honey produced in a season.

This short production season, combined with temperamental weather and the labor needed to prepare the bees and beehives for manuka honey production, increases the cost of the final product.

The Cost Of Testing Manuka Honey

Honey producers who want to market their honey as manuka honey must pay for the honey to be tested and certified as pure, unadulterated manuka honey.

The testing undertaken on the honey samples is not cheap and causes delays in the bottling and labeling of the final product. The testing reveals the UMF rating of the honey, which will determine the final resale price of the honey and the rating that can be advertised on the label.

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Beekeepers may not know the condition of the manuka honey harvest until the final results of the testing come through. The lower the UMF rating, the lower the price the honey producer will get for the crop. The costs of testing and delays contribute to the high cost of manuka honey.

High Demand For The Limited Manuka Honey Supply

As we have already noted, manuka honey is not a high-yield production honey crop. The media coverage that the health benefits of manuka honey are receiving is increasing the public awareness of the product and pushing up the demand.

The basic rule of economics is that high demand for a rare product will cause the product’s price to soar. This principle holds true for manuka honey and is evidenced by our stores’ high prices on the shelves for this product.

What’s The Difference Between Manuka Honey And Normal Honey?

Normal honey’s healing and medicinal properties have been known and applied by humans for centuries. Honey’s antibacterial nature has seen the discovery of honey preserved in Egyptian pyramids for centuries and yet remains viable.

The main difference between normal honey and manuka honey is the additional health-impacting properties imparted to the honey by the nectar from the manuka tree. The properties the honey gains from these compounds seem to accelerate and dramatically improve the healing potential of the honey.

However, much testing and scientific study have been applied to manuka honey, and the promising results have been implemented as a marketing tool to increase public awareness and interest in the product.

The same cannot be said for all other monofloral honey types, which may hold similar, yet undiscovered, health benefits that may rival the manuka honey properties.

Can You Make Manuka Honey At Home?

As a beekeeper, you may wonder why you cannot grow manuka trees where you reside and produce your own manuka honey.

Even though the manuka tree has been imported and now grows in a variety of environments across the world, there are seldom sufficient plants in one location to enable the production of manuka honey in different countries.

It is difficult to create the right growing environment for the manuka trees to grow the plants in large numbers to make them viable for honey production. The plants are also sensitive to changing climate conditions, making them difficult to grow in large numbers outside of their natural habitat.

Since there is no other commercial value to the manuka tree, it is not a viable agricultural crop to grow for the sole purpose of honey production.

The honey you produce would also need to be verified as pure, unadulterated honey by testing at a lab geared to test for the key signatures of the manuka honey before you can market the product as such.

What Is Fraudulent Manuka Honey?

Given that manuka honey fetches a high price, many people and corporations attempt to benefit from the manuka honey reputation and pricing under false pretenses and deliver an inferior product.

One such fraudulent undertaking is producing honey from a New Zealand plant called the kanuka tree, which looks similar to the manuka tree, grows in the same environment, and even flowers at the same time.

The kanuka is called Kunzea ericoides, also known as the white tea tree, and is often misidentified as manuka, even by beekeepers. The honey produced from the kanuka is sometimes intentionally or unintentionally marketed as manuka honey.

However, if this honey is sent to be tested for a UMF rating, it would fail the test since it would not have the same properties as manuka honey.

Other products sold as manuka honey may have some manuka honey in them, but the honey is diluted or watered down with syrup, a process called adulteration in the honey production world.

These substandard products are labeled as manuka honey and use misleading numbers on the label, similar to UMF or MSO standards. The sole intention of this is to dupe the public into paying a high price for an inferior product.

Conclusion

Manuka honey has undergone scientific testing to prove its superior health properties over other honey. However, marketing hype around the product has certainly contributed to the increased demand for manuka honey, stimulating high prices.

The high prices are good for manuka honey producers but also contribute to a growing fraudulent manuka honey industry.

Consequently, if you want to try some manuka honey for a particular health reason, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with distinguishing between real and fake manuka honey.

References

Author

Theo The Beekeeper

When I was a kid, my dad used to keep bees around the small farm we had, and I absolutely loved helping him. In the past few years, we’ve picked up the hobby again, and I’ve been doing a lot more research. This website is the accumulation of things I’ve learned along the way! You can learn more about my journey and the resources I’ve developed on my about page.

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