Is Manuka honey’s hefty price tag justified?

6 min read

Sadly, I don’t write or help people with their diet full time. I run this website along with growing a new nutrition consultancy business, whilst working full time. Prior to my current day job working in the food industry, I did a very brief stint in Holland & Barrett (don’t judge me I needed a job). The store is a household name, but if you aren’t familiar with it, it sells a variety of supplements, food and beauty products, as well as aromatherapy and homeopathy products, all promising to alleviate symptoms of some ailment or another. The claims are strong, the evidence weak, and every time someone asked me which tea would help them with their weight loss the most, I died a little inside.

I was never a huge shopper at H & B, normally only going there to get protein powder during their penny sale. Does anyone shop there at any other time? But during the handful of days I worked there I got a huge discount off products and I took full advantage. Manuka honey was one of their best-selling products. I had never really paid much attention to it before. I’d heard people raving about its antibacterial properties, but I had also heard about how ridiculously expensive it was, even in a penny sale. I questioned how amazing this honey could really be, but I was in an impulsive mood, had money in my pocket for once after being a poor student, so thought sod it, I’m going to buy it.

I should have researched it beforehand. I know better.

Yet, I’m continuing to use it. Just not for the reason I thought I would.

Why is Manuka honey so special?

Honey has been used as a healing ointment since ancient times with the earliest recorded usage found on Sumerian tablets circa 2000 – 2100 BC, and has been scientifically proven to aid healing of wounds, burns, and infections. All honeys have antimicrobial activity due to its acidity, and high sugar and low water content, with the antimicrobial activity of honey varying from botanical to geographical region.

Methylglyoxal (MGO) is a candidate for some of the antimicrobial activity in Manuka honey, but the antimicrobial activity in honey is not solely due to MGO. Other antimicrobial effective agents in all honeys are: hydrogen peroxide, high osmolarity (sugar and protein concentration), acidity, antioxidants, increased lymphocytic and phagocytic activity, nitric oxide, phenolic compounds, and reduced prostaglandins. The thing that makes Manuka honey different from the rest, is that hydrogen peroxide, is degraded by catalase, an enzyme found in red blood cells that seeks hydrogen peroxide at wound sites. Whilst other honeys lose their peroxide activity, some honeys like Manuka honey, retain antimicrobial activity after exposure to catalase and heat which can also stop peroxide activity. These are called non-peroxide honeys, and have been found to have up to 100 times more antimicrobial activity compared to other honeys. Commercial, processed honeys, with a higher moisture content lose much of their antimicrobial benefits.

MGO is not exclusively found in Manuka honey and can be found in smaller amounts in other types. Researchers found that Buckwheat and Blueberry honey also have potent antimicrobial effects, and a recent study has shined new focus onto a Cuban honey, produced by Melipona beecheii bees. M. beecheii honey exhibited greater antibacterial effects than its Manuka counterpart. Sadly, the scientists did not measure the MGO concentrations as part of their biochemical analysis of the honeys, so we can’t say if their findings were associated with the MGO content. The scientists suggested the greater antimicrobial activity in M. beechii was due to a higher total phenolic content and greater acidity. In a study where MGO was neutralised, Mānuka honey still maintained its antimicrobial activity. Therefore, if you see a Manuka honey that is rated purely on MGO, this won’t necessarily reflect on the quality, as MGO can be also be added artificially. The unique Manuka factor (UMF) grading system, expressed as phenol equivalents of bactericidal activity, may be more appropriate as this tests for three distinct chemical markers of the honey; MGO, Dihydroxyacetone, and Leptosperin.

Can I improve my health by eating the Manuka honey?

Probably not. Many of the studies that claim beneficial health effects used doses of 50 – 80g of honey, which supports studies that have found the MGO does not survive transit during digestion, with only 5 – 20 % of ingested MGO being recovered. You need to consume a lot at a high concentration to see any benefit. It has been suggested it helps digestive health, but many of the studies that these claims are based on have been done on bacterially infected animal cells in a lab, not clinical studies. Manuka honey inhibits the causative agent for peptic ulcers, Helicobacter pylori, in the lab, however one clinical study found that consuming Mānuka honey did not inhibit H. pylori. This is a perfect example of why clinical studies are so important as results can be very different. Diabetics need to be wary as I have seen some claims that Manuka honey could help treat diabetic ulcers, and at the end of the day, it contains a lot of sugar and could affect blood sugar levels.

In keeping with its proven topical benefits, it could help with oral health. Because of its antimicrobial activity, it doesn’t appear to cause tooth decay as it can inhibit the harmful bacteria associated with cavities. However, it is still advised to brush your teeth afterwards, just to be safe. Researchers found that Streptococcus mutans was reduced significantly after consumption of honey from wildflowers, but researchers did not specify the exact type of honey administered. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there about how it helps a sore throat, but it does appear that any raw, unprocessed honey could confer some antibacterial activity. To date there are no reported cases of microbial resistance to honey. One study demonstrated that medical-grade honey can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The same researchers were able to reduce skin colonisation in healthy volunteers 100-fold over two days. This could be promising for the treatment of superbugs such as MRSA, but more clinical trials are needed.

I haven’t noticed any benefits yet, but I am intrigued to see if it can help with my psoriasis, and if I ever get a sore throat. Am I likely to rush out and buy any more? Probably not when prices range from £10 to £98 a jar. I’ll stick to throat lozenges.