Using Manuka Honey as a Medicinal Superfood (when 80% is fake)Updated: June 20, 2018 Natural Remedies
Even conventional medicine is recognizing this fact. In 2016, the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Microbiology boldly declared that manuka honey is no longer considered a folklore alternative remedy. This is due to the rapidly growing body of credible studies and case reports demonstrating its beneficial effects.
The rapid rise in antibiotic resistance is one of the main drivers fueling this interest by scientists, clinical practitioners and the general public. The spread of deadly bacterial pathogens immune to all known medications requires the use of novel antibacterials. The manuka honey industry has responded by actively promoting studies that demonstrate its effectiveness as a powerful, broad spectrum natural antibiotic with potent anti-viral capability as well.
Unfortunately, the surge in manuka’s popularity has triggered an explosion of dodgy dealings on the part of manufacturers. According to the UK Independent, aproximately 83% of the manuka honey on the 2014 global market was fake. The figure may be even worse today.
This qualifies as a full blown food scandal in my book. It is especially concerning given that more people are using manuka honey therapeutically. In some cases, doctors are choosing it in cases where pharma antibiotics are failing to do the job.
If you love manuka honey like I do and use it for all manner of home remedies like I have for almost 30 years, the information below is provided to assist you with sourcing only the most authentic, potent stuff!
Where Does Manuka Honey Come From?
The manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium) is native to Australia. Growing extensively in New Zealand as well, this shrub-like plant goes by other names too including tea tree and red damask.
Note that while manuka is sometimes called tea tree, it is not the source for tea tree oil. That comes from another plant native to Australia, Melaleuca alternifolia.
Bees that forage primarily on the pollen from Leptospermum scoparium produce manuka honey. When bees consume one dominant type of pollen, it is called mono-floral honey. These specialty honies of which manuka is the most well known, have a long history of medicinal use. (1)
- Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans employed honey for dressing wounds and diseases of the intestine.
- Similar to garlic, honey exhibits remarkable anti-bacterial activity. It destroys many pathogenic organisms including Salmonella, Shigella, Escherichia coli, and Helicobacter pylori. Best of all, it poses no threat to beneficial microbes.
- In an inflammatory model of colitis, honey proved effective as prednisolone treatment.
- Studies indicate that honey may possess anti-inflammatory activity and stimulate immune responses within a wound.
- Research demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effects of honey after ingestion.
- Honey prevents reactive oxygen species (ROS)-induced low density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation in some in vitro studies. Thus, it exhibits beneficial cardiovascular protection.
- Honey acted to inhibit tumor development in an experimental bladder cancer.
Manuka Honey Health Benefits
What makes manuka honey so special amongst the several hundred other types around the world? Studies show it contains unique compounds that the bees collect from the manuka trees. Once converted into honey, these substances supercharge the beneficial effects.
While not particularly tasty on your morning toast, real manuka honey is potent enough to be considered medicine.
Peter Molan of Waikato University in New Zealand, was the first to report on these beneficial aspects. He began testing its action against a wide range of different bacterial species in the mid-1980s.
Research is very clear that even low concentrations of manuka honey destroy bacterial pathogens. However, the specific active ingredient responsible for this effect remained elusive until 2008.
The cause of this remaining activity, dubbed “non-peroxide activity” or NPA, was finally revealed in 2008, when two laboratories independently identified methyl glyoxal (MGO) in manuka honey. MGO results from the spontaneous dehydration of its precursor dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a naturally occurring phytochemical found in the nectar of flowers of Leptospermum scoparium, Leptospermum polygalifolium, and some related Leptospermum species native to New Zealand and Australia. (2)
The presence of large amounts of methylglyoxal or MGO is what makes manuka honey superior to other types of honey for medicinal purposes.
Leptosperin is another naturally occurring chemical found only in the nectar of Manuka plants. It was first identified by Japanese researcher Kato in 2014. (3)
Scientists continue to research beneficial manuka specific chemical markers that can be used to establish authenticity for labeling and certification purposes.
How Manuka Honey is Certified
To enjoy manuka’s benefits, you have to be sure that the honey you’ve selected is potent enough.
There is much adulteration and counterfeit manuka honey in the industry! As mentioned earlier, more than 80% of manuka honey produced in 2014 was fake.
Unfortunately, finding the best manuka honey that has sufficient potency for medicinal use is more confusing than you might think. The honey industry utilizes numerous competing certification systems.
As you will see below, these certifications are not equivalent either.
Manuka Honey MGO
Professor Thomas Henle, the head of the Institute of Food and Chemistry at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, developed the MGO grading system for manuka honey in 2008. The company Manuka Health primarily uses it.
Research shows that the concentration of methylglyoxal (MGO) in manuka honey ranges between 38 to as much as 1000 mg/kg. The minimum requirement for antibacterial activity in manuka honey is 100 mg/kg or MGO 100.
The higher the MGO level, the stronger and more potent the antimicrobial effects of the manuka honey. However, for practical purposes, MGO 400+ is proven to kill a wide spectrum of pathogenic bacteria and viruses immune to pharmaceutical based antibiotics.
Unique Manuka Factor (UMF)
UMF stands for Unique Manuka Factor. It ranges from 10 to 25. The UMF Honey Association in New Zealand developed this grading system and grants UMF licenses to manuka honey manufacturers who meet their standards. Manuka honey that scores UMF 10+ is considered potent enough for medicinal use.
Like MGO, the UMF grading system measures for methylglyoxal. However, UMF measures for three additional properties. (4)
- NPA (non-peroxide activity) is measured which represents the industry’s standard phenol disinfectant.
- Leptosperin is a manuka specific chemical marker. Its presence helps identify authentic manuka honey.
- DHA (dihydroxyacetone) is the precursor for methylglyoxal and determines overall MGO levels.
Some manuka honey manufacturers do not like the UMF ranking and complain that it is unreliable. Kerry Paul, founder of Manuka Health which uses the MGO certification system says: “… two tests done at different times on the same batch of honey can give very different results.” (5)
Whether this criticism is accurate or just sour grapes is hard to discern from a consumer point of view.
MGO vs UMF Manuka Honey
Suffice it to say that these two primary ranking systems prove very confusing to the public! I say this from personal experience. I’ve used manuka honey as a natural antibiotic for almost 3 decades. However, I didn’t truly understand the differences in these certification processes until I did a deep dive for this article.
If you are attempting to compare two brands of manuka honey, one which uses UMF and the other MGO, this helpful calculator will convert one ranking to the other and vice versa.
As if the MGO vs UMF certification differences aren’t enough, there are many other lesser known grading systems for manuka honey.
NPA (Non-Peroxide Activity)
NPA manuka is sourced exclusively from New Zealand. Tests confirm the presence of methylglyoxal (MGO). The level translates into an “active” number that corresponds to the UMF system. In other words, both NPA and UMF manuka honey are tested the same way. There is no difference between the two except that NPA is not certified by an independent third party.
The company Wedderspoon utilizes the KFactor system for rating its raw manuka honey.
It measures markers such as purity, live enzymes, over 250 chemical compounds, DHA, pollen count, pH levels, antioxidant levels and phenolic compounds.
Strangely, KFactor does not measure MGO, NPA or leptosperin levels. Their omission is surprising given that these three compounds are the most important antimicrobial elements. (6)
Other Lesser Known Rating Systems
If you examine all of the manuka brands on the market, you will notice even more ways to categorize manuka honey. Examples include TA (total activity), Active, Bio-Active, and AAH (Airborne Active Honey). Numbers like 15+, 20+, 25+, even 70+ may accompany these terms as well.
Note that these terms are misleading, sometimes intentionally so. They are usually assigned to fake manuka honey blends and are not an accurate measure of the therapeutic levels of antimicrobial properties.
Which Manuka Honey Rating System is Best?
In my view, UMF is the best rating system for manuka honey at the present time.
This certification is independently tested, strictly enforced, and directly proportional to the methylglyoxal content and the honey’s corresponding antimicrobial effectiveness.
Does this mean that the other major certifications like MGO and KFactor are fake? Not necessarily, but it does mean that an objective third party has not examined them to be sure of authenticity.
The canary in the coal mine if you are not confident of your chosen brand is to test it and see if it works medicinally. For example, use it as a sore throat, canker sore or fever blister remedy and see if it improves the speed of healing. If you notice rapid improvement and subsiding of symptoms than if you used nothing, then keep using it!
The chart below summarizes the most common labeling of this confusing industry and what it means in the real world. (7)
|Very high antibiotic properties. Superior healing properties||15-20+||400-550||18-22|
|High antibiotic properties. Good healing properties.||10-15+||100-400||14-18|
|Suitable for maintaining good health.||5-10+||30-100||8-14|
|Comparable to local honey.||0-5+||0-30||0-8|
Using the chart, you can see that both of the brands of manuka honey pictured below would qualify as very high or high in antibiotic properties. However, the brand on the left is pasteurized, and so would be inferior from that perspective even though the MGO value is greater.
Let’s explore this contradictory product reality a bit further ….
Raw Manuka Honey
One of the thorniest problems with the manuka honey industry is that heating honey does not degrade the methylglyoxal (MGO). Hence, what you will find once you start looking is companies selling heat treated manuka honey that still tests well for antibacterial properties.
Be aware that other damage occurs despite an intact MGO! Heat treating the manuka honey destroys all probiotics and enzymes, as notable examples.
Hence, it really is best to seek a manuka honey brand that is UMF certified and raw (this brand is my favorite). Organic would be icing on the proverbial cake as toxins such as glyphosate are showing up in many types of honey from around the world. (8) However, I have not found an authentic manuka honey that is both raw and organic.
The reason is likely because it is very difficult to produce organic honey. A beekeeper friend of mine told me that it requires organically certified land within a 5 mile radius of the beehive. This is because bees are able to fly that far away from the hive when collecting pollen.
The Best Manuka Honey
It is sad but not surprising that manuka products are subject to much adulteration, counterfeiting, and perplexing labels. This is where the certifications come in and are so very important.
If at all possible, stick with a reputable company or business that sells UMF certified, raw manuka honey. This is the honey that will provide you the most benefits.
Remember, a great deal of the adulteration happens AFTER the honey has left its country of origin. Buying direct from the farm or company doing the bottling for the beekeepers in the country of origin is best.
Kiva brand is excellent and one of the most affordably priced I could find. It is from a remote and pristine area of New Zealand. There is at least one other good brand as well, but it is more expensive.
Remember: inexpensive manuka honey or jars comparable in price to other types of raw honey equals fake manuka honey.
Medical Manuka Honey (Science Backed)
Providing you are using manuka honey that is potent enough (MGO 400+ or UMF 10+), what ailments is it helpful for? Below is a summary of common uses and benefits.
- One encouraging study found that manuka shows great promise as a treatment for flu. (9)
- Like most types of honey, it is a treatment for burns and other wounds. (10)
- Some studies show promise that manuka is an effective treatment for certain types of ulcers, such as leg and other skin ulcers and infections. (11)
- Recent research suggests that manuka honey may be effective in preventing gingivitis and other periodontal disease by reducing the buildup of plaque. (12)
- A study in 2010 by the scientific steering committee of the National Cancer Institute approved a proposal for the use of manuka honey for the reduction of inflammation of the esophagus associated with chemotherapy. (13)
Many people use manuka honey as a remedy for strep throat and similar infections. While there is good anecdotal evidence for this, along with clear scientific backing that honey, especially manuka, may help such infections, there is currently no specific research showing its effectiveness.
Manuka Meltdown – Aussies vs Kiwis
One important issue specific to manuka may further impact the market in the coming months and years. There is a brewing battle between Australia and New Zealand over whose honey is true manuka honey.
The dispute kicked off when New Zealand attempted to claim ownership of the name “manuka honey”. In response, Tasmanian beekeepers claim that they were the first to actually make manuka honey, despite the fact that New Zealanders were the first to really market and gain traction with this specialty honey. (14)
Australian beekeepers are trying to get their island neighbors banned from using the manuka name. This is the case even though there doesn’t appear to be any difference between the manuka products of these two countries!
This conflict appears to boil down to the big bucks manuka currently demands in the global marketplace, especially China. Unlike regular commodity honey, manuka often sells for a hundred or more dollars per gallon. Small jars with the necessary certification frequently retail for $30 or more. So, while it doesn’t matter what country you get manuka from currently if you get it from a good quality reputable source, it may in the future!
How to use Manuka Honey
In Australia and New Zealand, locals eat manuka just like any other honey. However, it is very strong tasting and not as sweet as other more popular types of honey.
My recommendation is to use local raw honey for culinary purposes and reserve your expensive, authentic manuka honey for medicinal treatments only.
Use it full strength, scooped straight from the jar with a clean spoon. Store it in a cool, dark pantry. Do not refrigerate.
When needed, rub on the skin directly or take internally. Consuming it every few hours is best when utilizing it as a natural antibiotic. Continue with this regimen for at least a day or two after symptoms fully subside.
If the taste proves too potent, dissolve a teaspoon in a few ounces of warm (not hot!) water or herbal tea first. Only warm liquid or foods are best to protect all the beneficial compounds, not just MGO.
The Healthy Home Economist holds a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Mother to 3 healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, ABC, NBC, and many others.