The world it seems has rediscovered one of nature's great natural miracles: lovely, sweet, sticky honey! In the UK too, sales of honey are going up, up and away with Waitrose, for example, reporting that sales of honey overtook sales of jam for the first time ever in 2014.

Accident of history

But why is the world all in a buzz about this single flower honey from New Zealand (a little bit comes from Australia too), and why does it sometimes command an appreciably higher price tag than other types of honey? Interest in honey is nothing new though and the historians among you will likely remember that great figures from Ancient times, such as Cleopatra, were great advocates of honey. However, the manuka honey phenomenon is actually relatively recent and almost an accident of history because honey bees were introduced to New Zealand by English missionaries in the 19th century.

Go forth and multiply...

Scientists have long known that honey in general has an antiseptic property but in 1980 a researcher in New Zealand called Dr. Peter Molan discovered that manuka honey had a strong antibacterial effect that worked in an entirely different way to other types of honey and this became known as its non-peroxide activity (NPA). Research work continues around the world and it has also been discovered that manuka honey has anti-inflammatory as well as antiviral properties – not bad for a jar of honey!

Why the confusion?

Many people are aware that there is something special about manuka honey, but when you park your trolley next to the honey section that's when the real confusion arises: different brands, abbreviations, descriptions and trademarks.

In order to make an informed choice, it helps to know what these mean, and while these abbreviations and scientific terms behind them can be a bit of a mouthful, they are important because these are what to look for if you want to buy a genuine manuka honey that has some antibacterial activity. This is also because not all manuka honey has this activity and the strength varies from batch to batch.

Brief guide to labels

Here in brief are some of the labels you may see and what they mean:

UMF – this is the most well-known trademark scheme and it stands for Unique Manuka Factor. The trademark describes the honey's non-peroxide activity and the testing is based on the work by Dr. Molan. (The antibacterial strength of the honey is given as a number from 5+ to 30+).

MGO Manuka Honey – this is another trademark scheme based on German research that discovered a substance naturally present in honey called methylglyoxal causes its antibacterial effect. (The strength ranges from 30+ to 800+).

NPA – not all producers of genuine manuka honey are members of the two trademark schemes. Some have the honey tested and give the non-peroxide activity (NPA) level, which is based on the same tests as for UMF honey. (The strength ranges likewise from 5+ to 30+).

There are a myriad different producers and labels but just remember that after reading the label you should know what the number is referring to. The New Zealand government is working on trying to standardize labelling for genuine manuka honey, and the MGO level is likely to appear in future on all genuine manuka honey labels.

The real deal

Wound care and manuka honey

Dr Molan's work also established that manuka honey can be effective against antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria (or MRSA), especially in treating wounds and burns. This has led to a whole new industry that uses manuka honey in medical wound care products. The type of honey used has a strong antibacterial effect but it is then sterilized (which doesn't kill the bioactive properties) into a medical grade manuka honey.

Manuka honey is considered to be beneficial for a variety of ailments including digestive and oral health, as well as a range of skin conditions. While some of the health claims are anecdotal, there continues to be considerable ongoing research. Experts consider that a UMF/NPA level of 10+ is necessary to gain any therapeutic benefit.

Manuka honey really is a unique gift of nature and has a strong, delicious taste and is worth trying for the curious!

See all the excellent Manuka products here.

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