We all know honey as the delicious natural sweetener that you can enjoy in a cup of tea or on a slice of warm toast. But there’s a bit more to honey than just being a tasty ingredient to sweeten your day.
Over the centuries honey has been used by traditional healers and doctors as a natural remedy to treat wounds, burns and infections. The Egyptians, Greeks and field doctors during the wars all relied on honey.
In recent years scientists have begun to look into whether these traditional uses of honey have any merit in our current modern first aid kit. One of the discoveries they’ve made is that not all honey is created equal. Different honey has different properties depending on the flowers the bees harvest the nectar from.
And although the size and number of research studies are still small, there are fairly good indications that New Zealand Mānuka honey really is a little bit special.
But let’s just take a moment and explain a little bit more about Manuka honey, New Zealand’s favourite honey.
Manuka honey is the honey that New Zealand is famous for. Bees gather the nectar from the white-pink flowers of our native Mānuka tree and from this they make Manuka honey.
Mānuka in traditional healing
In Maori traditional healing, Rongoā Māori, the New Zealand Mānuka tree is thought to have some very special properties. Traditionally all parts of the tree were used to help reduce inflammation, treat wounds and burns and soothe digestive upsets like diarrhoea.
But are these special properties of the Manuka tree seen in Manuka honey?
Yes, seems to be the answer. All honey contains a range of proteins, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phenolic acids and flavonoids that may be responsible for the traditional benefits. But Manuka honey has something a bit extra.
Before scientists worked out exactly what it was in Manuka honey that made it so special they identified this special-something as “Unique Manuka Factor”, or UMF.
Then they found the unique property that may make New Zealand Manuka honey a real super-food is a compound called Methylglyoxal (MGO).
Research has found that at certain concentrations MGO has been shown to restrict bacterial growth and can help to reduce inflammation.
Five health benefits of Manuka honey
For centuries honey has been used on skin dressings for wounds, skin ulcers and burns.
When applied to the skin, Manuka honey has been found to reduce the growth of some of the bacteria found in wounds. It is thought that the MGO and hydrogen peroxide found in Manuka honey is responsible for this.
Research also suggests that Manuka honey can reduce inflammation, increase oxygen supply to the wound and increase cells that build the structure for new tissue growth and the acidity level of Manuka honey pH (.5–4.5) can help reduce bacterial growth.
As we find out more about why Manuka honey’s so special we now know that bioactive agents, including MGO, flavonoids and phenolic compounds may be the reason why honey is thought to help a range of skin conditions. You can find Manuka honey added to many skin creams, lotions and balms here.
Research investigating how Manuka honey can help wound healing also suggests a beneficial role in managing skin conditions where infection or inflammation are common, such as dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis.
One in three adult New Zealanders suffers with periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/health-a-z/g/gum-disease/ , gum disease and gingivitis can cause loose teeth, bad breath and bleeding gums. Brushing, flossing and seeing your dentist regularly are the best ways of preventing and treating periodontal disease.
Although it seems counterintuitive to think of sweet honey as useful in oral health, Manuka honey has been found to reduce some of the bacteria that contribute to gingivitis and plaque formation. Manuka honey also has anti-inflammatory properties which may reduce gum inflammation.
A study investigating a UMF15+ Manuka honey chew, when chewed three times a day after meals, reduced plaque and gingival bleeding.
Manuka honey is a key ingredient in many winter wellness products including throat lozenges and sprays.
A study investigating the effect of Manuka honey on sore throats caused by radiation treatment (mucositis) found that honey reduced bacterial growth. Along with the anti-inflammatory and infection control properties that Manuka honey has, it makes it a great ingredient for boosting your immune system.
In the UK all types of honey are recommended as a treatment for coughs, rather than antibiotics in children and adults aged over 5 years.
A spoonful of honey may have a role in helping digestive complaints and gut bacteria.
Research has shown that Manuka honey can reduce the growth of Helicobacter Pylori (H.pyloria) a bacteria found in the stomach that is thought to be responsible for development of stomach ulcers.
Honey also contains prebiotic oligosaccharides that may be used by bacteria found in the digestive system to promote growth. And Manuka Honey specifically has been found to increase the growth of several beneficial bacteria.
Test-tube studies have also found Manuka honey to be effective in reducing growth of common gut bacteria pathogens, campylobacter and salmonella.
What to look for when buying Manuka honey for its medicinal benefits
When buying Manuka honey always look for either the MGO or UMF rating. Here’s what they mean:
MGO 250+ and above, or UMF 10+ and above is considered to be “medicinal grade”.
Here’s how the UMF and MG ratings line up
Here are the studies we reviewed to make sure we gave you true and trusted information about the potential health benefits of New Zealand Manuka honey.
Al Somal N et al. (1994). Susceptibility of Helicobacter pylori to the antibacterial activity of manuka honey. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 87(1), 9
Alvarez-Suarez J et al. (2014). The composition and biological activity of honey: a focus on Manuka honey. Foods, 3(3), 420-432
Bardy J et al (2012). A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trial of active manuka honey and standard oral care for radiation-induced oral mucositis. British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, 50(3), 221-226
Best Practice Journal. 2008. Issue 13. Demystifying Rongoā Māori: Traditional Māori healing. BPACNZ Better Medicine. Accessed June 2019 https://bpac.org.nz/BPJ/2008/May/rongoa.aspx
Eick S et al. (2014). Honey–a potential agent against Porphyromonas gingivalis: an in vitro study. BMC oral health, 14(1), 24
English HK et al. (2004). The effects of manuka honey on plaque and gingivitis: a pilot study. Journal of the International Academy of Periodontology, 6(2), 63-67
Lin SM et al (2009). The in vitro susceptibility of Campylobacter spp. to the antibacterial effect of manuka honey. European journal of clinical microbiology & infectious diseases, 28(4), 339
Lin SM et al. (2011). The controlled in vitro susceptibility of gastrointestinal pathogens to the antibacterial effect of manuka honey. European journal of clinical microbiology & infectious diseases, 30(4), 569-574
Mavric E et al. (2008). Identification and quantification of methylglyoxal as the dominant antibacterial constituent of Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honeys from New Zealand. Molecular nutrition & food research, 52(4), 483-489
McGovern DP et al. (1999). Manuka honey against Helicobacter pylori. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 92(8), 439-439
McLoone P et al. (2016). Honey: A realistic antimicrobial for disorders of the skin. Journal of Microbiology, Immunology and Infection, 49(2), 161-167.
McLoone P et al. (2016). Honey: an immunomodulatory agent for disorders of the skin. Food and Agricultural Immunology, 27(3), 338-349
Ministry of Health. 2010. Our Oral Health: Key findings of the 2009 New Zealand Oral Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
Mohan A et al. (2017) Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance, Food Quality and Safety, 1 (2), 107–115
NHS news. Honey not antibiotics recommended for coughs. Accessed June 2019 https://www.nhs.uk/news/heart-and-lungs/honey-not-antibiotics-recommended-coughs/
Patel S. & Cichello S. (2013). Manuka honey: an emerging natural food with medicinal use. Natural products and bioprospecting, 3(4), 121-128
Rosendale,D. I. (2009). Antimicrobial Activity of Functional Food Ingredients Focusing on Manuka Honey Action Against Escherichia Coli (Doctoral Dissertation), /Massey University, New Zealand
Schmidlin PR et al. (2014). Antibacterial potential of Manuka honey against three oral bacteria in vitro. Swiss dental journal, 124(9), 922-924.
Tomblin V et al. (2014). Potential pathway of anti-inflammatory effect by New Zealand honeys. International journal of general medicine, 7, 149