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Manuka Honey


Manuka honey is a uniquely New Zealand product that is associated with health, healing and rich, delicious, natural sweetness. But what exactly is manuka?

Three kinds of Manuka honey from New Zealand
Manuka honey from New Zealand

The Manuka Tree

Manuka ("ma-NOO-kah") (Leptospermum scoparium) is a tough scrub tree, i.e., one whose branches start from ground level, that flourishes even in poor soil. It is usually the first tree to grow on cleared land, and acts as a cover for other species to grow under. Its small, pink-white flowers grow in clusters and resemble cherry blossom.

While New Zealand is now the main habitat of manuka, it actually seems to have evolved in Australia, and can still be found in Australia's south-east. It is theorized that manuka evolved in the arid climate of Australia and, sometime in the last 20 million years, was carried over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand on winds. Manuka still prefers dry conditions, so is found more on the sunnier east coast of New Zealand than the west coast.

Manuka is also known as "tea tree" in New Zealand, because Captain Cook (1728-79) and his crew used the leaves to make an infusion. There can be no doubt that local Maori taught Cook the value of the manuka as a tonic. Besides using manuka extensively for its tough wood, the Maori also used it for its oils. They would drink an infusion made from manuka leaves to reduce fever and apply the gum of the tree to burns.

Manuka trees in the New Zealand forest
Manuka trees in the New Zealand forest

Manuka honey

Although New Zealand has 28 species of native bee, none of them produce honey. So, it was only when honeybees were introduced to New Zealand, in 1839, via Australia, that manuka honey came into being.

Manuka honey is claimed to have health-giving properties, just like manuka oil. The three substances most closely associated with manuka honey are methylglyoxal, leptosperin, and dihydroxyacetone.

Methylglyoxal (MGO)

MGO is a naturally occurring substance with antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Manuka honey contains about 38-761 mg/kg of MGO - much more than any other honey. Taken in isolation, MGO has some negative associations, being implicated in facilitating the aging process, in neurodegenerative disorders, and diabetes. However, as part of what makes up the incredibly complicated chemistry of manuka honey, MGO has been proven to be not only safe but beneficial. As is the case with many medicines, a tiny, controlled dose (administered by Mother Nature herself) of what in larger doses may harm you will cure you.

Be warned that not all manuka nectar contains high levels of MGO. So, if you are buying manuka honey for its health benefits, make sure that it has an MGO level of 250 mg/kg, guaranteeing the honey's vaunted antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Know, though, that in the case of a wound, for example, manuka honey's antibacterial properties are effective only if the honey is smeared on the wound itself. Eating manuka honey in the hope that it will disinfect a wound is ineffective.


Manuka honey, from the nectar of manuka flowers, is a difficult honey to produce, not least because the manuka tree flowers for only two to six weeks per year. The weather during those weeks affects bee activity, as does the presence of competing species of flora whose flowers might have a higher sugar content, and which therefore keep bees away from manuka trees.

This means that manuka honey supply cannot keep up with manuka honey demand. For this reason, manuka honey is more expensive - often much more so - than other kinds of honey. So, the temptation for unscrupulous apiarists to label their honey "manuka," when in fact it might not be, is therefore very strong.

That's where leptosperin comes in. Leptosperin is a naturally occurring chemical that is found nowhere else in nature but the nectar of the manuka flower. Unlike MGO, no health claims are made for leptosperin. However, its importance is as a marker identifying a particular honey as manuka honey. Therefore, if the honey doesn't contain leptosperin, then it ain't manuka.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is a substance best known as the active agent in sunless tanning products, because on contact with the skin, it turns the skin brown. We can speculate that DHA may be what contributes to the distinctively dark golden brown of manuka honey. This may also be one of the attractions of using manuka honey for a face mask, which some leading actresses, among others, have made a well-publicized habit of doing.

However, the main significance of DHA in manuka honey is that it is a precursor chemical of MGO. So, after a year or two of putting manuka honey in storage, DHA actually transforms into MGO. For this reason, manuka honey with higher DHA levels will, if left on the shelf for a long time, turn into manuka honey with even higher MGO levels than when it was purchased, further enhancing purported health benefits.

Honeybee - New Zealand manuka honey

Unique Manuka Factor

Put the above three substances together and you come to the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). UMF is not a substance; it is a grading system for manuka honey, administered by the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association. The UMF system is based on the measured levels of the above three substances in the honey.

The presence of a UMF number on manuka honey proves that it is genuine manuka honey, and not fake. The UMF is an industry-wide standard, but not all manuka honey producers follow it. Therefore, considering manuka honey's high price, it is more reassuring for consumers to buy UMF-certified manuka honey.

Simply having a UMF number on the label reassures consumers. However, the higher the UMF number, the more MGO the honey contains, and, therefore, the greater the supposed health benefits. Any manuka honey which is UMF +5 or greater has at least 263 mg/kg of MGO. The highest rank is MGO +26, with at least 1,282 mg/kg of MGO.

Manuka blossom, New Zealand.
Manuka blossom, New Zealand.

Why buy manuka honey?

Finally, when it comes down to it, if manuka honey weren't a great-tasting product, it wouldn't be so popular, whatever the health-related claims for it might be. (Anyway, no none's arguing that manuka honey is intrinsically better for you than, say, kale or cod liver oil!)

What matters most is that manuka honey is delectable, a must-try flavour. It is dark-colored with a rich, clean, somewhat nutty, aroma that speaks of thick forests and well-fertilized gardens, and perhaps a faint ghost of that pungent, piquant, no-nonsense cough mixture that perhaps mum used to administer you a spoonful or two of.

On your tongue, the initial jammy sweetness is balanced by an almost citrus-like aftertaste that slowly transforms from sweetness, heading in the direction of what you could imagine as sourness. In other words, the flavor of manuka honey has real depth (and is therefore very difficult to accurately describe!) Manuka honey is truly a foodstuff in a flavor class of its own.

Note, too, that nearly all New Zealand honey is creamed. Unlike in many countries where honey is a runny, translucent liquid, New Zealand honey is opaque, very thick, and almost solid when cold. Manuka honey, therefore, is also creamed.

Manuka honey - a flavor experience

To conclude, manuka honey is worth the price for the flavour experience alone. If it makes you healthier as well, then that's an added bonus. A tablespoon of manuka honey adds a sweet, rich, earthy je ne sais quois to any fruit smoothie. And of course it is delicious on a slice of bread or toast. But eating it as-is out of the jar is not recommended, simply because you might not know when to stop!

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