Thanks in part to its trendiness, a jar of manuka honey can command a high price — anywhere from $20 to more than $100, depending on quality and quantity — which is a far cry from the $5 bear-shaped bottle of honey you’ll find at your typical grocery store. Kourtney Kardashian and Victoria Beckham made it a trendy beauty remedy a couple of years ago when they used it in face masks, and it probably comes as no surprise that Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan.
But how is it different from any other type of honey? If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and whether you should be dropping your dollars on this much-hyped honey, here’s what you need to know.
What is manuka honey, anyway?
Manuka honey is made by bees that pollinate the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium). This particular plant is native to both New Zealand and Australia, though the labeling of Australian honey as manuka is somewhat controversial, with folks from New Zealand calling for the same kinds of protections for their product as Champagne and similar prestige products associated with a specific region or country.
Whether you’re getting your honey from New Zealand or Australia, there are key characteristics that separate manuka from your average honey. The late New Zealand biochemist Peter Molan famously discovered the exceptional antibacterial activity of manuka honey in 1982 and spent the following three decades studying it.
Methylglyoxal, or MGO, is the key antibacterial compound that sets manuka apart from other honey (it is present in manuka in significantly higher amounts) and is the foundation of the trademarked Unique Manuka Factor, or UMF, grading system. MGO is credited with possessing antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, making manuka a popular option for treating wounds, soothing sore throats and improving digestive issues.
Why does it cost so much?
The higher cost of manuka honey comes down to strong global demand and limited supply.
“Given its short flowering season – only 2-6 weeks out of the entire year – it takes immense skill, planning and resources to harvest manuka honey.”
– Corey Blick, senior vice president of Comvita North America
“Manuka honey is an extremely limited resource and can only be produced in areas abundant with native manuka blossoms,” Corey Blick, senior vice president of manuka honey company Comvita North America, told HuffPost. “Comvita’s hives are located in some of the most remote parts of New Zealand, accessible only by helicopter and hike-in. Given its short flowering season – only 2-6 weeks out of the entire year – it takes immense skill, planning and resources to harvest manuka honey.”
Weather plays a major role in manuka honey harvests, and can drastically affect supply. “You just never know what nature is going to do,” said David Noll, founder of Pacific Resources International, which sells manuka honey products. “If it rains a lot the bees stay home, so the volume of manuka collected is affected. Every year is different. One year, there was an abundance of clover that bloomed at the same time as the manuka and because clover has a higher sugar content, the bees just bypassed the manuka and went straight to the clover.”
Manuka honey with higher levels of active compounds will command a higher price. “Manuka honey can be funny in that the activity can be different year to year from the same location,” Noll said. “This is why we test every batch three times before [it leaves] New Zealand. Manuka honey can be 100% pure but have little or no activity.”
Pay attention to grades of manuka honey.
Put simply, manuka honey is expensive, and if you’re making the investment — especially if you’re looking to take advantage of specific health benefits like soothing a sore throat or improving digestive symptoms — you want to make sure you’re purchasing a quality product. Like extra virgin olive oil, the rise in demand for manuka honey has led to an increase in mislabeling and subsequent consumer confusion in identifying active manuka honey. If you’re not careful, you could end up with something that’s been adulterated, diluted or something that isn’t manuka honey at all.
“There is so much skullduggery out there with manuka being a big-ticket item.”
– David Noll, founder of Pacific Resources International
When buying manuka honey, some good things to look for are a UMF rating (a hexagonal logo with the grade listed inside), MGO rating (100+ for everyday use, higher for targeted issues) and NPA (non-peroxide activity). Don’t be fooled by labels with total activity counts that combine non-peroxide and peroxide activity to hide a low NPA value. There is plenty of honey around the world with high peroxide activity — it’s the non-peroxide activity that makes manuka honey unique.
Not sure what all that means? We’ll explain.
There are many grading systems that exist for manuka honey, including the highly respected and widely accepted UMF grading system by the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association. “The UMF Honey Association, which licenses the UMF quality mark, is an incorporated society with over 130 licensees,” John Rawcliffe, a UMFHA administrator, told HuffPost. “It is independent and can be trusted, while most other grading systems are just marketing exercises by single companies.”
Blick refers to UMF as the gold standard consumers can trust, as it independently certifies the presence of three key compounds that ensure honey is genuine manuka: leptosperin, dihydroxyacetone and MGO.
“While Comvita products [which are licensed by UMFHA] are tested for and guarantee appropriate levels of all three, some brands only measure for MGO, while others don’t measure for any,” Blick said. “UMF also ensures it has been sourced, packed and labeled in New Zealand and meets strict government standards. UMF-certified products are available from UMF 5+ intended for daily wellness, all the way up to a rare UMF 20+, containing the highest concentration of unique compounds.”
Whatever label or numbers you see on a jar of manuka honey, Noll emphasizes the importance of obtaining a certificate of analysis, or COA. “There is so much skullduggery out there with manuka being a big-ticket item,” Noll said. “There is only one way to be sure and that is to ask if the company offers a COA from an independent lab that matches the batch number.
Noll noted that the MGO rating for manuka honey should be a minimum of 100 milligrams per kilogram for basic everyday use. “Higher MGOs are for more acute conditions and not always good for everyday use,” Noll said. “Any honey lower than 100 MGO should be labeled as a multiflora manuka.
Here’s what a registered dietitian thinks.
Manuka honey is a wonderful thing, but it’s not a cure-all: There’s no such thing, no matter what wellness websites and clickbait stories may lead you to believe. At the end of the day, it’s still sugar, and the fact that it’s naturally occurring doesn’t change the fact that sugars should only make up a small percentage of your diet. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake and consuming no more than about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men.
“With a few exceptions, the types of sugars we eat are nutritionally equivalent – each provide about four calories per gram and are metabolized in similar ways,” Kris Sollid, registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, told HuffPost.
“While honey does contain some vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, the amount of honey you would have to consistently eat to realize a potential health benefit from these components would be outweighed by the number of calories and grams of sugar provided by that amount of honey.”