How to Buy the Real Deal
When the unique antibacterial benefit of Manuka Honey was discovered in 1981 by Dr Peter Molan at the Honey Research Unit at Waikato University the industry in New Zealand took off. Last year, 17,600 MT of New Zealand Honey was produced of which 8706 MT was exported. The export market is valued at $187M and is growing fast at 30%. The price per kg for Manuka Honey varies greatly from $8 to $85. When you compare this to Clover Honey at $5.50 to $8.30 you can see how lucrative the market for Manuka Honey can be.
There is increasing concern in New Zealand and overseas that honey labelled as Manuka is authentic and true to the label. But how can we tell if a jar is being fraudulently labelled and how can you tell if the Manuka Honey you are buying actually has any therapeutic benefits? Manuka Honey comes at a premium because of its proven antibacterial properties and although the industry is regulated by MPI and Codex it is important to have a good understanding of what to look for in genuine honey for yourself to make sure you are buying the real deal, this is where science comes in. Dr Peter Molan (MBE) was the scientist behind the ground breaking research at Waikato University that transformed our understanding of Manuka Honey. He also pioneered medical uses of Manuka honey in wound care offering a wonderful, natural alternative for burns and ulcer treatments. We had the opportunity to ask him some important questions about the industry to help you select a Manuka honey with confidence:
25 years ago clover honey used to set the benchmark for New Zealand Honey. Following your research at Waikato University this changed the game and now Manuka Honey is the hero. What makes it so unique?
The interest in manuka honey was because of the finding that it has a unique type of antibacterial activity, now known to be due to a type of sugar molecule, methylglyoxal (MGO). All types of honey have antibacterial activity, but that is due to hydrogen peroxide produced by an enzyme that the bees add to the nectar they collect. Hydrogen peroxide is rapidly broken down by an enzyme that is in blood and other body tissues, so makes honeys other than manuka less effective on wounds. There is also an enzyme in saliva that breaks down hydrogen peroxide, making honeys other than manuka less effective for infections in the mouth and throat. In the acidic conditions that exist in the stomach the enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide is not active so there is no antibacterial action in the stomach from honeys other than manuka. Manuka honey keeps its full antibacterial activity under all conditions.
Wow, so it is something special then. You see on labels and wesbites the term ‘Active Manuka Honey’, how is that different from other manuka honey?
In our original research we found that some of the samples of manuka honey sent in by beekeepers did not have any of the unique non-peroxide type of antibacterial activity. To distinguish the manuka honey that did have non-peroxide antibacterial activity we called it ‘Active Manuka Honey’. We realise now as more knowledge has been gained, that the honey the beekeeprs were sending in that did not have non-peroxide activity was in fact kanuka honey. Kanuka honey has no MGO in it, so its antibacterial activity is due entirely to hydrogen peroxide. That makes it of no more value than any other type of honey in the world.
Unfortunately people marketing honey started using the term ‘Active Manuka Honey’ for honey in which the activity is due to hydrogen peroxide, and using misleading rating numbers to indicate the level of this activity. Many consumers have been fooled into thinking that they have purchased genuine manuka honey, and have paid very high prices for what is not actually manuka honey.
It seems like the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) are on to this. In July 14, MPI updated their requirements for pack claims on Manuka Honey so that manufacturers can no longer make therapeutic claims like ‘Active Manuka Honey, they can now only make content claims. So what can consumer look for on pack to help them chose what is good and is it good enough?
Intially MPI ruled that the only rating that could be used on honey was the ‘contents claim” of the level of MGO present. That would have been excellent for consumers because it prevented any of the misleading claims of activity ratings that were not the genuine unique non-peroxide activity. MGO is the component responsible for the unique non-peroxide activity of manuka honey, and the potency of the antibacterial activity is directly proportional to the level of MGO present.
However, MPI later ruled, ridiculously, that any rating numbers could be used as long as they were defined. So now there are even more of the very misleading ratings on the market, for example, “70+ pollen”. (Note that manuka and kanuka pollen grains are indistinguishable, so that rating does not even tell consumers that the honey is manuka honey and not kanuka honey.)
It is safest for consumers to check that the honey they are considering buying states the MGO content. Beware of products on the market stating low levels of MGO (e.g. MGO 80), as these will be a blend of manuka honey with other honeys. A level of 250 mg/kg MGO will be a blend with a high proportion of manuka honey in it. A level of 500 mg/kg MGO upwards will be a good manuka honey.
Great, that makes it clearer. But what about the UMF rating scale? Is this a water tight measure of activity in Manuka Honey and can consumers use this as a guide to help them with a purchase?
The UMF rating, as I devised it, used to show the level of non-peroxide antibacterial activity in manuka honey with reference to a standard antiseptic, phenol (e.g. UMF 15 had the same antiseptic strength as a 15% solution of phenol). It is now stated by the UMF Honey Association that “The UMF® rating is a measure of the attributes and values that make up Manuka honey, and assures purity & quality.”
Back to the MGO levels in honey then. Would a Manuka Honey with a rating of less than 500 mg/kg MGO (the old UMF 15 rating) be considered a Manuka Honey?
Because MGO develops in manuka honey during storage (by a spontaneous reaction) the level present depends on the age of the honey. But by the time that honey has been commercially processed, bottled and distributed it will most likely have reached a level of MGO of 800 mg/kg if it is 100% manuka honey and not a blend. The Codex standard for a monofloral honey is that it has to be “wholly or mainly from the named floral source”, so a honey with a level of MGO of 400 mg/kg could be considered to be manuka honey. A less mature honey with less than 400 mg/kg MGO could well be OK also. MGO 550 is the highest level sold by Manuka Health. Watson & Son sell honey with a level of MGO of 800 mg/kg.
We believe that there are only three areas of NZ that produce reliable, activity of Manuka Honey year after year – Northland, Coromandel and the East Cape. Should consumers only buy Manuka Honey with hives that have come from these regions?
The main reason for the level of non-peroxide activity/MGO varying in manuka honey harvested by beekeepers is that the proportion of nectar in the honey that comes from manuka trees varies. There are good sites in all parts of NZ where there are large enough areas of manuka growing for the bees to not have to visit other types of plants to gather enough nectar. In Northland and the East Cape there are more of these good sites, but there are also poor sites in these regions. Consumers should be more concerned about the MGO content of the honey than which part of the country it comes from.
You can find out more about Manuka Honeys activity levels in this video by Peter. It is really worth a watch and will convince you that you need to be sure of what you are buying. If you have any questions for Peter please post them here or contact Peter on his website www.petermolan.com
 What’s special about Active Manuka Honey, Dr Peter Molan, 2012 http://www.academia.edu/2187608/Pdf_7_Whats_special_about_Active_Manuka_Honey
 Apiculture Ministry of Primary Industries 2014 Apiculture Monitoring Programme Report