The last decade has seen the inexorable rise of Manuka honey. Manuka is a magnificent and unique honey from New Zealand mainly ( it also exists in Australia-different name though) which has highly esteemed anti-bacterial qualities and has now been adopted by the pharmaceutical industry. The honey market in the UK has been taken over by Manuka honey, with local honeys maintaining a loyal following.
So is it just hype, marketing, propaganda ? and what do all those activity numbers mean ? Is there a reason we are paying silly amounts of money for "active honeys"? How does Manuka compare to other raw honey and Is Manuka better ?
Well, as with everything the truth is out there somewhere, usually in the grey bit somewhere between the black and white zones.
A true antibacterial honey test of which there are a couple, (honey is tested for many things including diastase activity, free acid, humidity, pH, electrical conductivity, invertase activity and adulteration ), is called a phenol assay. Where a comparative test is conducted on a concentration of a phenol standard solution on various bacterial cultures versus the effect of a given honey on the same culture. Basically a bacterial culture is placed on a glass plate and the efficacy with which the honey deals with the harmful bacteria and the rate at which it does this determines the "activity number".
The action may be Bacteriostatic, that is it inhibits the growth of a culture, or bactericidal, which actually kills the culture. Most of the research and testing on the medical efficacy of honey focus on 5 or 6 different antibiotic resistant pathogens, Staph, MRSA, E.coli etc
All raw honey is antibacterial, some are more antibacterial than others. Typically the darker honeys like Carob and Arbutus, Thyme, Heather, African Forest honeys, Buckwheat and of course Manuka. These are potent medicinal honeys. The reason that all these honeys are antibacterial is because of the presence and action of hydrogen peroxide produced by the enzyme Glucose oxidase found in raw honey. However hydrogen peroxide is usually broken down by the body using an enzyme called Catalase, turning it into hydrogen and oxygen. Manuka honey has an antibacterial component which is non-peroxide based, a molecule called Methylglyoxal or MGO, which does not break down in the presence of catalase. So for more serious wounds and external infections Manuka has some staying power and might be more effective than other raw honey. You can also use other raw honeys for wounds,( I have used Arbutus honey on more than a few occasions for this purpose). However most people don't buy Manuka just for its wound healing and infection fighting properties, they consume it. Besides this one unique property, Manuka is in no way superior nor does it necessarily have the mineral and antioxidant profile of Carob honey for instance, which is superior in both of these aspects. I recently read a paper on a comparison between Chilean Ulmo 90 honey and Manuka 25+, in a total microbiological assay the Chilean honey outperformed the Manuka, however after the Chilean honey was placed in the presence of Catalase to remove its Hydrogen peroxide, its antimicrobial efficacy diminished.
However one thing that is clear is that honey chemistry is more complex than previously imagined and a very recent study showed that there are other compounds in honey that are also responsible for its antimicrobial ability such as the peptide, bee defensin-1. (not present in Manuka) there are also a number of as yet unnamed proteins found in various honeys which contribute to antibacterial activity and may have a synergistic effect with hydrogen peroxide and each other. So this is an unfolding picture where science is slowly unravelling some of the mysterious medicinal mechanisms contained in different honeys.
Recently I saw something a little alarming, new honey coming on to the market with a host of activity numbers. On closer inspection of the prominently displayed activity number, the number was just related to one enzyme, diastase. I also found it absurdly overpriced. This is not a good trend.
We owe Manuka honey a debt for bringing honey back as a valuable medicinal food/substance and taking it out of the realm of a "sweetener" or an alternative to jam or sugar. But the Manuka marketing and pricing is skewing the market, forcing out beautiful medicinal honeys from all over the world and turning high quality raw honey into a luxury food, something only the wealthy can afford. This is completely undesirable I want to see high quality raw honey to be accessible and available for a price that most people can afford, while at the same time paying a fair proportion to those involved in bringing it to market. Activity numbers are not readily understood, are often misleading and convey a very partial picture about the efficacy of the honey.
So how do we evaluate what to buy and use and consume.? Our first marker has to be our own intuition, instinct and taste. We can be guided by ourselves not simply wait for the next snippet of "scientific info" to guide our behaviours, Honey after all is delicious not just nutritious and medically efficacious. The other thing that we can use is traditional knowledge. Many traditional societies have prized particular honeys and swear by its panacean qualities; Sidr honey from the Yemen, African and Malaysian forest honeys, Buckwheat honey in the Americas and Russia, Chestnut and Oak honeys from Europe and Arbutus or Strawberry tree honey from Sardinia and Portugal. Another thing is anecdotal evidence, much derided by science but noteworthy nonetheless. For me two very powerful anecdotes stand out, one was a man in hospital dying of ulcerative colitis, who was dying despite all that drugs and surgery had to offer, whose life was saved by taking three-six large spoons of raw honey per day, The other is a little closer to home, my wife who had a serious bike accident in her twenties and had many of her teeth smashed, and has suffered serious dental problems since, with constant headaches and infection emanating from her bad teeth and gums, particularly a 5mm pocket in an upper gum. Three weeks and one jar of raw honey later, taking a spoonful last thing at night after brushing her teeth, that pocket has healed and her teeth and gums have never felt better. I know its true because they scarcely rate a mention these days. What is more neither of those honeys was Manuka. In my wifes' case it was Arbutus. The man in hospital I believe used Oak honey,
So what about Manuka ? Well its a great honey, and if I had a MRSA, Staph or an E coli infection whilst in hospital I'd probably reach for some, but I'd also reach for any of the others I've also mentioned too. Is Manuka worth the fantastic prices ? I guess I'm going to leave that answer to your own judgement.
Two footnotes to this story one good one not so good. Honey dressings (manuka) are now becoming part of medical practice in hospitals as antibiotic resistance as well as the efficacy of honey in wound healing is a great sign and I'm sure in time other honeys will be used as well.
The not so so good is that there is now more Manuka honey for sale than is actually produced. ...