Honey has been used since ancient times as a sweetener as well as to treat multiple medical conditions. Hieroglyphic drawings on cave walls show that hunters and gatherers were willing to battle hordes of bees to collect the precious amber liquid which sweetened their rather basic diet. Primitive people had no idea how honey was produced, and could only conclude it was a gift straight from heaven. Thus early on it was assumed to have healing powers in addition to sweetening food and drinks. In recent decades, research shows that honey in general contains vitamins and minerals in minute amounts and exhibits antibacterial and anti-inflammatory characteristics. One type of honey that is repeatedly alluded to as having a superior nutritional profile is a monofloral honey produced from nectar of the manuka tree growing in New Zealand and Australia. Is this indeed the case and if so, what are particular health benefits this would impart?
Manuka honey—along with other types of honey—contains several B vitamins as well as minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. However, what is of note is manuka has a significantly higher level of certain enzymes than regular honey that work as an antibacterial. One is hydrogen peroxide found in many types of honey, but in addition manuka contains methylglyoxal (MG) as well as dihydroxyacetone which is converted to MG, the enzyme that is largely responsible for manuka's antibacterial potency. It must be noted that not all manuka honey has the same concentration of MG, and thus a standard has been set up known as Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) that measures MG potency.
So of what health benefit is an antibacterial agent to us? As an antibacterial and antimicrobial substance MG has the ability to mitigate medical conditions brought on by the presence of bacteria. For example, it might aid in balancing bacteria (harmful and friendly) in the gastrointestinal system, reduce plaque in the mouth and help heal wounds, burns and cuts. It should be noted that not enough controlled studies have been done to verify that manuka should be marketed as an antibiotic. Most people agree, however that manuka honey is effective for treating external conditions such as wounds, burns and leg ulcers, while the efficacy of internal healing abilities is more nebulous.
Another characteristic that manuka honey has become known for is as an anti-inflammatory. Several minor studies have shown the honey provided protection against colonic inflammation brought on by conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, as well as reduced inflammation of the esophagus brought on by chemotherapy treatment. It also means the honey could strengthen and protect the immune system.
Some use manuka honey to treat acne and eczema, applying it directly to affected areas and leaving it on for a few minutes before washing it off with gentle soap and water. Others use it as a facial mask to moisturize and protect the skin. While these further claims of manuka honey cannot be substantiated from clinical trials—coming rather from testimonials—this doesn't mean the honey does not work positively to help heal skin conditions and mitigate inflammation.
It should be noted manuka honey is available in Canada, mostly in health food stores. It is usually a dark brown colour with a high viscosity and has a robust flavour which has been described as “rich and earthy.” It can be used to sweeten foods and drinks such as yogurt and tea, as a spread or in baking where you might typically use honey. You can expect to pay more for manuka than regular honey. It's important to read labels to ensure you are getting the genuine product.
If you intend to ingest manuka honey for medicinal purposes, look for the a product with a rating of at least UMF 10 (Unique Manuka Factor) which means it carries a high enough level of antibacterial activity to be beneficial. Some products use a different rating system: for example 100+ on the label means the product contains 100 mg methylglyoxal (the active ingredient) per kg.
There are also a range of products in addition to actual honey connected to the manuka tree. One is propolis, a natural resin in the buds of the tree collected by bees and mixed with their own enzymes. Sometimes called “nature's antibiotic” it is said to be effective in supporting the body's immune system and may be purchased as a liquid. Royal jelly in capsule form works as an antioxidant as well as an antibacterial, while moisturizing skin products and lip balm containing manuka honey are on the market.
This column is sponsored by Good 'n' Natural in Steinbach.