Natural Foods Merchandiser secret shopper: I keep seeing manuka honey touted as a remedy. What are its advantages over regular honey?
Store: I know that it’s antibacterial—more so than other honeys. And I think some people like to use it during cold and flu season.
NFM: How do I know which product to choose and that it’s really manuka? Is there a certification I should look for?
Store: Well, I know true manuka honey has to come from New Zealand, but that’s all I really know. I’m sorry I don’t have more info for you.
How did this retailer do?
Our expert educator: Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color, who has traveled to New Zealand to study manuka honey.
It’s true that all real manuka honey is produced in New Zealand and that all honey has some antibacterial qualities. In regular honey, it comes from hydrogen peroxide that bees make, while in manuka honey, multiple other factors contribute. One antibacterial compound found only in manuka honey is leptosperin, which comes from nectar of the manuka honey bush. It also contains dihydroxyacetone, or DHA—not the fatty acid, but a precursor to the antibacterial compound methylglyoxal.
There are different rating systems for manuka honey’s antibacterial activity, which can make this topic incredibly confusing for retailers and consumers. The most prominent system is UMF, or unique manuka factor, overseen by the UMF Honey Association, which tests manuka honey for leptosperin, DHA and methylglyoxal and assigns a grade of 5 to 20. The higher the UMF number, the stronger the antibacterial properties. Manuka honey ranked 12 and up is medical grade and can be effective in treating wounds and sores. But remember, it is antibacterial, not antiviral. Colds and flu are viral, so while people may like to add manuka honey to tea when they’re sick, there is no healing benefit.
But not all manuka honey brands use the UMF system. Also, as of 2018, the New Zealand government requires all manuka honey to be tested before export. These new standards will certainly validate whether a product is 100 percent manuka honey but won’t tell you the antibacterial activity.
I think there is room for different types of manuka honey on the market, so retailers should educate themselves on this topic so they can explain to shoppers why one product may be $20 while another is $80. Also steer away from touting any health benefits that haven’t been proven, such as detox or preventing colds and flu.