Although it’s easy to roll your eyes at so-called “medical-use honey,” prior to the advent of antibiotics in the middle of the 20th century, honey was a go-to medicinal product for huge swaths of the global population. But while acute allergy sufferers have likely turned to a teaspoon of local honey each day to potentially take the edge off of their seasonal symptoms, honey’s healing and preventative properties have largely been relegated to old-wives’-tale status. That is, with one notable exception. Interest in manuka honey has never been greater, leading to a global surge in prices, and a thriving counterfeit market. But what is manuka honey, and what makes it so highly prized?
For starters, the word manuka comes from the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, parts of Australia and other Eastern Polynesian islands. It’s the name given to the leptospermum scoparium plant, more commonly known as the tea tree plant, our first hint at the unique properties of manuka. The tea tree’s versatile oil is a frequent ingredient in everything from body deodorant and insect repellent to acne, athlete’s foot and even ringworm infections. Manuka honey is therefore a variation of the golden sweetener made by the bees who pollinate the tea tree plants of New Zealand. And while tea-tree cultivation is hardly limited to New Zealand, manuka honey absolutely is.
But try telling that to the countless honey manufacturers that are falsely labeling their products manuka. A recent ABC News investigation that tested 20 jars of so-called manuka honey being sold under five different brand names in four U.S. cities, found that only two of the manufacturers were actually selling legitimate manuka. Who made the grade? Manuka Health, and, perhaps surprisingly, Trader Joe’s. Of the two, only Manuka Health is a member of the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA), the governing body responsible for regularly auditing some 100 member companies for purity and authenticity.
UMFHA audits are predominantly focused on measuring methylglyoxal (MGO), the powerful compound that gives manuka its supposed superpowers. MGO studies have credited the compound with a variety of autoimmune-boosting abilities like the rapid healing of wounds and bacterial infection prevention. It should be noted however, that nearly all the evidence that MGO research has produced proving manuka’s health benefits have centered on topical application of the food to external injuries and infections. MGO-rich manuka does indeed assist in the healing process when applied topically, but the most scientists can say for sure at this point about ingesting manuka is that it doesn’t appear to damage mammalian cells.
Why does the distinction matter? For the same reason that the proliferation of counterfeit manuka should matter. Manuka retails for sometimes as much as ten times the price that other, local honeys cost. A pound of UMFHA-approved manuka ranges from anywhere between $60 and $100, an immense markup over U.S. wildflower or clover honey. Honey counterfeiters are earning an unbelievable premium by deceiving consumers about the origin of their products, but the joke may be on those consumers and the ones purchasing the authentic stuff alike. Because remember, there is little proof that ingested manuka provides any sort of wellness benefit to the internal workings of the body.
Still, in a world facing down a potentially catastrophic epidemic of antibiotic-resistant germs in our relatively near future, scientific and medical interest in natural alternatives to antibiotics is at an all-time high. Early experiments with cashew oil have proven remarkably effective at killing drug-resistant microbes, and from what we’ve gleaned from hundreds of years of medicinal manuka usage, there’s every reason to hope for a similar breakthrough here.
While the scientific community agrees that you aren’t necessarily doing your family any harm by ingesting manuka, the jury is still out on whether or not consumption provides any sort of autoimmune boost whatsoever. So if you’re so inclined to drop $100 on a one pound jar of honey at the moment, you might want to err more on the side of slathering a dollop on a small skin wound in lieu of antibiotic ointment rather than adding a teaspoon to your evening chamomile tea if you really want to get your money’s worth. Is manuka more powerful than antibiotics? It very well could be, but for now, the limited evidence in a growing field of study only backs up manuka’s benefits when used topically.