Honey has been known for ages to have healing properties. At the very least we can be sure it is one of the most healthy and natural sweeteners available. However, some types of honey have been celebrated as healthier than others and manuka honey is said to be the best of the best. This guide will cover everything you need to know about manuka honey, but before we start we need to answer the most basic question.
What is Manuka honey? Manuka honey is the honey made by bees that gather nectar exclusively from the manuka tree, also known as tea tree. This type of honey is mostly produced in New Zealand and Australia where the manuka tree grows in the wild.
But what makes manuka honey different from other types of honey? Where to the healing properties it is said to have come from? How to use manuka honey as a natural medicine or a food supplement? These are the questions we are going to answer today so read on if you’d like to find out more.
Table of Contents
What Makes Manuka Honey Unique?
Manuka honey is a monofloral type of honey, which means that it has been made by bees who (exclusively or predominantly) gather nectar from a single plant species. This plant in question is manuka, a type of tree that has been used in traditional medicine for ages. So, before we go into more details about manuka honey, it makes sense to say something about the manuka tree.
The Mānuka Tree
Mānuka is the original Maori spelling of its name, but it is also commonly referred to as manuka, manuka myrtle, broom tea-tree or simply tea tree. If you live in Europe or anywhere in the West, chances are you have already heard of tea tree, or more specifically, tea tree oil. However, this is actually a different tea tree. Coincidentally also coming from Australia. Both plants have great antimicrobial and healing properties, but they are completely different plants.
Did you know? The scientific name of the plant is Leptospermum scoparium.
Anyway, let’s go back to the manuka tree. Manuka usually grows in a shrub-like manner, reaching anywhere between 2 and 5 meters (7-16 feet) in height, but it can sometimes grow to be as much as 15 meters (50 feet) tall. It’s an evergreen with dense branches, small leaves, and white or pink flowers. This is a very old species native to Australia and New Zealand where it grows in the wild, but it has been successfully cultivated across the world thanks to the growing popularity and recognition this beautiful plant has been getting in recent years.
The manuka tree itself has many uses in traditional medicine (and in the pharmaceutical industry), but what we are interested in today is obviously the honey made by bees that gather the nectar of the manuka tree flowers. So what makes manuka honey so special?
Characteristics of manuka honey
Manuka honey is quite easy to recognize, as it is a little different from other types of honey. Although the color and the taste can vary from year to year (just like with every kind of honey), there are some characteristics you can always expect to find in manuka honey.
First of all, manuka honey is distinctively viscous. This is due to the high protein content compared to other types of honey. Moreover, manuka honey is rather dark compared to other types of honey – anywhere between dark cream and dark brown is normal. Finally, manuka honey also has a strong flavor which often comes as a surprise to people who try this type of honey for the first time. It is less sweet than most honey and it can even leave you with a slight tingling on the tongue. The taste has been described as complex, earthy, herbaceous, and mineral – as you can see, it’s hard to describe, but if you haven’t tried it you definitely should!
Manuka honey does not only taste and look a little different than other types of honey. Actually, scientists have confirmed that it contains chemical markers unique to the Manuka plant. The most important, and most well-researched of those compounds is Leptosperin. This is because Leptosperin cannot be found anywhere else than in the nectar of the manuka plant. This makes it a good indicator that the honey really comes from the manuka tree. Other chemical markers present in manuka honey include Methylglyoxal (MGO) and Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) which is a precursor of MGO.
What Can Manuka Honey Do For You?
Manuka honey has been used as a traditional remedy in New Zealand and Australia for ages. In recent years, the interest in this natural remedy has spiked all over the world, mostly because of its antimicrobial properties. Quite a bit of scientific research has been done to confirm what traditional healers have known for a long time – and so far it seems to be true. Some research even seems to confirm the effectiveness of manuka honey in some cases where conventional antibiotics were not effective due to bacteria developing resistance. Considering all of this, it’s no wonder that manuka honey is becoming the go-to natural germ-fighter. But how exactly can you use manuka honey to experience the health benefits it has to offer? These are the areas where it has been shown to be effective.
It helps fight viral and bacterial infections
Honey, in general, has been used since times unknown as a natural antibiotic due to the natural occurrence of hydrogen peroxide in honey. Manuka honey offers an additional weapon in fighting bacteria – MGO. It has even been shown to be effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a strain notoriously hard to beat with conventional antibiotics.
The antimicrobial effects of manuka honey can be put in use in many different ways. In the case of skin infections, it can be applied directly to the skin. However, manuka honey can also help make your body’s natural defense system stronger if you eat a spoonful or two every day. Reportedly, it can even cure a sore throat!
It helps with healing wounds and damaged skin
Manuka honey works great when used as an ointment to treat wounds of all kinds. It can be used to help minor cuts and scrapes heal more quickly, but it can also be used on bigger wounds, surgical wounds, and even burns. Manuka honey can even help clear out existing infections of wounds, but for best results it should be used immediately. This way, it can prevent any kind of infection from occurring.
The main reasons why manuka honey is super effective for wound treatment are its antioxidant and antibacterial activity, but this is not all. Honey also creates a protective film over the wound, stimulates the skin’s natural healing mechanism, and keeps the area moist. There have been cases where honey helped heal wounds that didn’t respond to conventional antibiotic and antiseptic treatment.
It reduces inflammation and irritation of the skin
If you haven’t tried applying honey to your skin before, you must try it with manuka honey. It can be used as a face mask for a beautifully calming effect. According to some reports, it’s even effective against acne and eczema. In relation to this, a natural remedy made of honey diluted in warm water and applied to the skin can help fight conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff. Manuka honey is also a very popular ingredient in DIY face masks.
Manuka honey improves digestion and boosts the immune system
The anti-inflammatory effects of manuka honey don’t work only on the skin – it can be just as effective when eaten! Because of this, it can help protect from and ease the symptoms of gastric ulcers. Not only this, but manuka honey is a good prebiotic because it’s rich in oligosaccharides. This means that it actually boosts the production of good bacteria, leading to a calm stomach and good digestion. Finally, manuka honey can also be effective in fighting gut infections caused by certain strains of bacteria including helicobacter pylori.
Manuka Honey Quality Grading Systems
If you have tried shopping for manuka honey recently, it’s very likely that you have been confronted with one of the numerous manuka honey grading systems. UMF? MGO? KFactor? MGS? The choice of letters and grades sometimes seems a little bit random. The truth is, even though UMF is the most widely accepted grading system (and the only one that is independently tested!) for manuka honey, some manufacturers have decided to use their own unrelated grading systems. In any case, we’ll now explain the 4 most common gradings for manuka honey. If you see one of these, it should mean that the manuka honey you are looking at is really made from the manuka tree.
UMF is the manuka honey grading system that was established by UMFHA, the biggest trade association of manuka honey producers in New Zealand. The UMFHA was established in 1998 and they grant UMF licenses to manufacturers that meet the established standards. In our opinion, UMF is the most reliable grading system for manuka honey, and this is true for at least two reasons.
First of all, the UMF is the only grading system that checks for all 4 chemical markers that are unique to manuka honey: Leptosperin, MGO, DHA, and HMF. Because of this, it is considered the strictest manuka honey grading system. Moreover, the authenticity tests performed by UMFHA are the only ones done independently. They also check the honey once it has reached the stores to make sure that there was no tampering with the honey after export from New Zealand (this is because adulteration is actually a common problem with manuka honey).
All in all, UMF is a reliable way to know that the manuka honey you are buying is really top quality. UMF ratings between 10 and 15 indicate that there are useful levels of the 4 substances we mentioned in the honey, and UMF16 indicates superior quality manuka honey. It is also possible to check a companies license number on the website of UMFHA.
MGO actually refers not to a grading system, but to methylglyoxal, a chemical component found in manuka honey. However, some manufacturers (Manuka Health, for example) choose to indicate only the levels of MGO on their packaging. Quite simply, the MGO number tells you the level of MGO in the honey. MGO ratings over 400 are comparable to UMF ratings of 16 and above.
The KFactor is a grading system invented and used by a single company – Wedderspoon. They say they prefer to use their own methodology for testing the honey rather than the one used in the UMF grading system.
According to Wedderspoon, the KFactor certifies the presence of “5 key factors” that tell you that you have genuine manuka honey in front of you. Two of these factors are related to the origin of the honey – they refer to the fact that it comes from New Zealand, and, moreover, that the honey can be traced back to the exact beekeeper and hive. Moreover, the KFactor guarantees that the honey is raw and unpasteurized, non-GMO verified, and free of antibiotics, glyphosate, and pesticides.
There are basically only two KFactor ratings – 12 and 16. KFactor 12 refers to “multiflora manuka honey”, meaning that the bees have collected nectar from multiple plant species, but a significant amount of it did come from the manuka tree. On the other hand, the KFactor 16 refers to “monofloral manuka honey” – supposedly of the highest possible quality.
So, is the KFactor a proper guarantee that the manuka honey is genuine? Well, it probably is, but trusting the KFactor does involve a little bit more trust than trusting the UMF due to the fact that the KFactor is not independently confirmed.
MGS is another grading system similar to UMF, but less detailed. It measures only the levels of MGO and DHA, but these are the most important chemical markers in manuka honey after all. If the levels of MGO are lower than 100mg/kg, the MGS grade is not awarded. If the levels are above this, you can rest assured there are useful amounts of MGO in your honey. MGS grades range from 5 to 30 relative to the amount of MGO and DHA present in the honey.
Manuka Honey Alternatives
Manuka honey is all the rage these days, but the truth is, a lot of the benefits of manuka honey are the same as with any kind of pure raw honey. Honey is simply awesome! With that being said, manuka honey seems to have stronger antimicrobial properties, and it does work the best as a skin salve. In any case, here are two great alternatives to manuka honey:
The Great Antioxidant: Heather Honey
In a recent research project, scientists from Dublin City University and Trinity College Dublin tested a whole lot of samples of Irish honey to check for the levels of antioxidants. The results say that heather honey is just as good in this regard as manuka honey. They also found that multifloral honey made by urban bees who collect nectar from a wide range of different flowers tends to have really high levels of antioxidants.
A Vegan Alternative For Skincare: Aloe Vera
One of the most common reasons people look for alternatives to any kind of honey is because they adhere to a vegan diet. While there is some dispute over whether honey is vegan or not, looking for a plant-based alternative is completely reasonable. One of the applications where manuka honey is most effective is when it’s used as a salve for the skin. A comparable alternative that comes straight from a plant is the gel from aloe vera. It’s full of vitamins and antioxidants, and also highly anti-inflammatory – just like manuka honey!
Manuka Honey FAQ
How much manuka honey should I take per day?
Taking one or two tablespoons of manuka honey a day will ensure that you reap all the benefits of this superfood.
What is the best way to take manuka honey?
There is no best way. You can eat manuka honey straight from the spoon if you like, but one might also enjoy getting creative with adding manuka honey to your diet. You can spread it on toast, add to various sweets, yogurt, or smoothies. There are no limits really.
How long can you keep manuka honey?
Just like any other type of honey, manuka honey never really expires. In fact, honey has been used traditionally to preserve other foods because of this property. However, you should still take care not to expose your manuka honey to too much light or heat in order to keep the quality of the honey intact.
Title image from Grey Geezer [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Medical news today: Is Manuka honey really a superfood?
Alvarez-Suarez et al. 2014. The Composition and Biological Activity of Honey: A Focus on Manuka Honey
Johnston et al. 2018. Antibacterial activity of Manuka honey and its components: An overview
Salmon, J.T. 1973. The Native Trees of New Zealand