Manuka honey’s antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties set it apart from traditional honey.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
As well as a distinctive earthy flavour and thick, viscous texture, manuka honey benefits from antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that set it apart from traditional raw honey. It’s for this reason that scientists have started to examine the health claims associated with manuka honey, from assisting with wound healing to tackling tooth decay.
Produced only in Australia and New Zealand, manuka honey is made from nectar collected by bees that forage on the wild flowering plant Leptospermum scoparium, commonly known as the manuka bush. Since manuka honey can only be made in the short window the plant is flowering – around two to six weeks each year – it’s a relatively rare commodity (which is why you’ll find bottles priced anywhere up to £150).
Given the high price tag associated with this sweet, rich liquid, which purported manuka honey benefits live up to the hype? With the expertise of Mike Wakeman, clinical nutritionist at Feel Alive, we take a look what the science so far can tell us about manuka honey benefits – and explain what to look for on the label:
9 evidence-based manuka honey benefits
While more research is needed to endorse its use in a clinical setting, early results using sterilised, laboratory-tested manuka honey in limited, small-scale studies have been promising. Scroll on for nine evidence-backed manuka honey benefits:
- A source of vitamins and minerals
‘The composition of manuka honey consists of carbohydrates, minerals, proteins, fatty acids, phenolic and flavonoid compounds,’ says Wakeman. As well as amino acids – the building blocks of protein – it also contains B vitamins, calcium, copper, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese. However, like any honey, it’s also high in sugar, with 12g per 15g serving, so we’d advise against replacing your daily multivitamin with a spoonful of the stuff.
- Highly antibacterial
Many of Manuka’s healthful attributes are thought to relate to its major antibacterial component, methylglyoxal (MGO). Even though MGO is found in most types of honey, it’s usually in much smaller quantities. In manuka honey, MGO comes from the conversion of a compound called dihydroxyacetone, which is found in high concentration in manuka flowers. The higher the concentration of MGO, the stronger the antibiotic effect. ‘Researchers have found that manuka honey has a higher antibacterial activity against various strains of bacteria, with a stronger effect coming from manuka honey with higher MGO levels,’ says Wakeman.
- High in antioxidants
Antioxidants protect your body from free radicals, which are waste substances produced by cells in the body in response to everyday toxins and stressors. Free radicals cause oxidative stress in your body, causing cellular damage that contributes to ageing as well as diseases like heart disease, cancer, arthritis and stroke.
When researchers analysed six types of honey, they found that manuka contained the highest levels of antioxidant activity.
When researchers analysed six types of honey, they found that manuka contained the highest levels of antioxidant activity. ‘Manuka’s antibacterial potency comes from the fact it has a higher total number of phenolic compounds, which have an ability to scavenge superoxide free radicals,’ Wakeman says.
- Assists with wound healing
Manuka honey has long been used as a treatment and protective barrier for burns, sores, and other wounds, thanks to its antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Topical application has been shown to enhance the regeneration of tissue, reduce healing time, and even decrease pain in multiple studies. ‘Manuka honey has the ability to stimulate macrophages which are needed for reducing microbial infections and helping in tissue healing,’ says Wakeman. It may even help reverse resistance to antibiotics in bacteria such as MRSA, the Society for General Microbiology found.
- Promotes oral health
Despite its high sugar content, manuka honey has been shown to inhibit the growth of oral bacteria associated with plaque formation, gingivitis and tooth decay. In one 28-day trial, participants who sucked a manuka honey chew for 10 minutes three times a day after each meal had ‘statistically highly significant reductions’ in plaque and gingival bleeding compared to a control group, the University of Otago found.
- Relieves cold and flu symptoms
Not only does manuka honey help soothe your sore throat by coating the inner lining, but its antiviral and antibacterial properties help to reduce inflammation and fight the bacteria behind the symptoms. In a study of patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for head and neck cancer, consuming manuka honey was found to decrease levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria responsible for sore throats.
Additionally, manuka honey has been shown to fight the bacteria that cause upper respiratory infections – the symptoms of which may include a cough, sore throat, a stuffy or running nose and sneezing – in people with cystic fibrosis. And in a study from the University of Washington, it was found to be just as effective as saline nasal irrigation at relieving the symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis (and far more pleasant, too!).
- May protect against stomach ulcers
Stomach ulcers are among the most common diseases affecting humans, and are characterised by stomach pain, nausea and bloating. A rodent study found that manuka honey decreases the concentration of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IL-1β, and IL-6, resulting in a gastroprotective effect on the stomach lining. In test tube studies, it also has been shown to kill H. pylori, the bacteria that is responsible for the majority of stomach ulcers. However, high quality human studies are needed before any conclusions can be drawn.
- May relieve digestive disorders
Manuka honey has been shown to reduce inflammation in rats with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder, and ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. In test tube studies, it also has been shown to kill Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection that has been linked to conditions such as ulcerative colitis.
Manuka honey may increase amounts of certain ‘good’ bacteria and decrease the prevalence of ‘bad’ bacteria.
Another lab study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology found that manuka honey increased amounts of certain Lactobacillus probiotics – the ‘good’ bacteria that boost your gut health – and decreased the prevalence of ‘bad’ bacteria like E. coli. Again, high quality human studies are needed before any conclusions can be drawn.
- Boosts athletic performance
Honey delivers a ‘significant’ performance boost to athletes during strenuous exercise, and is just as good as an equivalent sports gel, research by University of Memphis Exercise and Sport Nutrition Laboratory has shown. This is due to its high carbohydrate content, a critical nutrient in endurance exercise. The make-up of manuka honey is predominantly carbohydrates: 40 per cent glucose and 30 per cent fructose.
Manuka honey benefits: what to look for
To distinguish their healthful honey from other varieties, both Australia and New Zealand have established a set of standards that guarantee the antibacterial potency in every bottle. UMF stands for Unique Manuka Factor and is the grading system developed by the UMF Honey Association in New Zealand. The higher the UMF, the more potent the honey. In Australia, credible brands are awarded the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA) Mark of Authenticity. Both New Zealand and Australian brands also frequently state the MGO levels in their honey. Again, the higher the number, the better.