What’s the buzz about manuka honey? How is it created and why is it so special? Let’s take a look at why so many think it’s the bee’s knees…
In many ways, manuka honey is very similar to any other regular honey.
For one, it’s created by bees who pollinate a plant and take its nectar back to the beehive. Then, the bees do what they do best — nectar is passed mouth-to-mouth between industrious workers, which reduces its water content. At this point, the nectar becomes the gloopy golden goodness which we know and love — honey.
The key difference? The plant. Manuka honey only comes from the nectar of New Zealand’s manuka plant — known scientifically as Leptospermum scoparium. The nectar creates a truly unique end product, but this plant has many quirks that require beekeepers to work strategically and creatively.
Manuka honey — one of a kind
The main reason manuka honey has gained such a great reputation, and the reason it stands out among the honey family, is because the nectar of the flower contains unique natural compounds.
Not only that, but the plant from which it is made grows only in New Zealand and for only a few weeks per year, making it rare and increasing its value.
About the magical manuka plant
So, what makes manuka honey extraordinary? The native manuka tree — Leptospermum scoparium, also known as the New Zealand tea tree — is uniquely adapted to live and thrive in New Zealand’s challenging natural environment. Manuka is resilient and, because of this, it acts as a regenerator of the land and a hardy natural protector.
Manuka has a long history and is revered for its properties and as such, has long been used by the Māori people in medicine. This is because the nectar of the flowers found on this plant contain rare natural compounds unlike any other honey-producing flower.
The manuka plant blooms in the warm weather between spring and summer, taking approximately 25 days to go from bud to a stage five flower — by this point, the flower is no longer producing nectar.
When the manuka flower is blooming during this short window, beekeepers work around the clock to harvest the honey. It’s not uncommon for them to use helicopters to transport beehives and to access remote locations.
As well as having such a small window of opportunity, manuka honey is special because even the slightest change in weather can damage the chances of pollination. If strong winds blow the Manuka flowers from the plants, or rain keeps the bees from venturing outside of their hives, the honey can’t be made.
As a result, the amount of honey produced by a beehive, and the overall honey production each season can vary greatly. This puts an additional premium on the product.
In part, this is why the honey is so unique, costly and cherished. The conditions, the planning and the actions from the bees and the beekeepers have to be perfect.
Why manuka is different to ‘normal’ honey
Manuka honey is not just your simple table honey. Extensive scientific research has gone into investigating the honey’s remarkable natural properties and to understand the unique conditions required to create it. These particular characteristics distinguish it from other honey, and as a result it has become highly prized throughout the world.
Perhaps the clearest, most celebrated difference between regular honey and its manuka cousin is the presence of methylglyoxal.
Methylglyoxal (MGO) — a unique compound
Care and attention must be paid to maximise this specific product. This is especially true of methylglyoxal (MGO), which has been found to be the naturally-occurring compound that makes manuka honey so special.
MGO is formed in the honey from manuka nectar; in the beehive, it is converted from dihydroxyacetone, a substance that occurs at very high levels in manuka plant nectar.
MGO is highlighted as one of the key drivers for differentiating manuka from its counterparts. It is the ‘wellness’ compound, which has helped manuka honey catch the eye for its much-discussed health, skincare and wound healing benefits — and even its propensity to help soothe a sore throat!
As the honey ripens, the amount of MGO can increase. Simply put, the higher the quantity of MGO, the more potent the honey and its properties will be. Expert storage, handling and testing of the honey is essential to ensure certifiable quality, potency and purity of the honey.
Strict regulations must be complied with throughout the manufacturing process and a grading is applied so consumers understand how potent their manuka is and what level of MGO it contains.
The MGO manuka honey rating system measures the potency and certifies the authenticity of manuka honey products, giving a clear, qualified and scientifically-proven assurance of the amount of methylglyoxal in each.
These tests are carried out by independent laboratories in both New Zealand and the UK. Since it’s methylglyoxal that most people are interested in when they choose to try manuka honey, the MGO rating system is one of the most popular.
This system makes it simple for consumers to understand the amount of MGO in their honey; the number refers to the mg/kg of methylglyoxal in any product.
MGO isn’t the only way of rating the potency of manuka honey, however. UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) is another prominent grading system; this measures MGO in addition to a number of other natural ‘markers’ to help guarantee the authenticity of a manuka honey product.
Making sense of these other rating systems can be slightly confusing — so we’ve broken it down in our blog comparing MGO and UMF.
To be called manuka, honey must pass a number of authenticity tests
As well as being rated for its MGO potency, to be labelled and shipped as manuka, the product also has to pass a series of specific manuka honey tests laid out by the New Zealand government’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
These form part of a robust scientific definition to authenticate whether a honey is officially New Zealand manuka honey. After all, not all honey is created equal, and New Zealanders are understandably anxious to protect and preserve the integrity of this signature premium export.
To be authenticated, a combination of five attributes (four chemicals, one DNA marker) must be present in the honey, identified through two laboratory tests. If any one of the attributes are not met, a product is not manuka honey.
- Test 1: This is a chemical test. Four chemicals must be present in certain amounts — phenyllactic acid, methoxyacetophenone, methoxybenzoic acid and hydroxyphenyllactic acid. The amount required depends on whether the honey is monofloral or multifloral.
- Test 2: This is a DNA test. DNA of the Leptospermum scoparium plant must be present at a certain level.
It’s traceable from hive to jar
As a consumer, having paid so much, it’s only right to want to be able to track that jar’s journey and know what you’re getting. It’s unlikely to be a concern for any old ‘normal’ honey!
This is easier than ever thanks to enhanced labelling meaning with either a QR code, or additional label date, you will be able to review and trace your jar’s journey right back to the hive.
Plus, for any product to be labelled as ‘manuka honey’, it has to have met a number of rigorous criteria to determine authenticity, as laid out above. Keep your eyes peeled for packaging wording like ‘product of New Zealand’.
Why is manuka honey so expensive?
The relative expensiveness of manuka honey partly relates to the cost of production — the special conditions in which the manuka plant grows, the expertise required by beekeepers to nurture the product, the rigorous testing it requires and its grading process. Manuka honey has a very limited production window each year.
Like any consumer product, price is also affected by how many people want to get their hands on it — given the perceived superpowers (and tastiness!) of the product, it’s not hard to see why there’s more demand than supply.
Given the sheer effort, expertise and testing required to create and authenticate manuka means compared to normal honey, combined with demand and wellness benefits, this particular product commands a premium. After all, any honey that can require the use of helicopters to maximise its production is never going to come too cheaply.
The varied grading does however mean that you can always trial a lower strength, particularly if you’re just using it for day-to-day use for cooking and wellness. An MGO30+ manuka product costs approximately one sixth of a premium strength MGO550+ jar, so don’t feel like you have to dive in at the top end if budget is a concern.
Mānuka Health — for traceable, wellness-packed authentic New Zealand manuka honey products
At Inspired Health, we’re proud to offer Mānuka Health’s market-leading range of 100% authentic manuka honey products — each one traceable to the nectar of the New Zealand manuka plant!
As well as jars ranging from MGO30+ to MGO550+ — all simply labelled according to their strength — you can even get your hands on some manuka honey drops, wound honey and on-the-go snap packs.
Oh, and if you’re still only half way through your manuka honey-infused warm drink, don’t forget to visit The Hive — our hub of expert insights and information about the Maori magic of manuka honey!