What Is Manuka Honey, and Why Is It So Particular?

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In partnership with our friends at Comvita

You either have a precious pot of Manuka honey in your pantry, or you read this and wonder how every 8.8-ounce jar of honey has the right to be fifty-seven dollars.

It all starts with the Manuka tree, a species of plant native to New Zealand. Manuka honey comes from the nectar of these flowering Manuka trees – and cell studies have shown that compounds in Manuka honey, particularly methylglyoxal (MGO), have antimicrobial and antibacterial activity.

Why collect honey and not just the nectar? The answer is twofold. “First, collecting manuka nectar is very labor-intensive,” says Dr. Jackie Evans. Evans is the Chief Science Officer at Comvita, a company that has been making Manuka honey in New Zealand for more than four decades. “When we test the nectar from our trees, it can take a person ten to fifteen minutes to collect about ten microliters of nectar with a pipette,” she says. You did the math: it would take a hundred people, working two full months from morning to night, to collect enough nectar to fill an 8.8-ounce glass.

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But the main reason we crave the honey rather than the nectar is because of the miracle of bees doing what bees do. “The way bees make honey isn’t just about moving nectar from the flower into a honeycomb,” says Evans. “They actually take the nectar in their separate honey gizzards and mix it with enzymes from their mouth to turn it into honey.”

There is a short flowering period – around two to six weeks per year – which is the only window of time for the bees to do their thing. And Evans notes that bees don’t like to fly when it’s wet or cold, so good weather is key during this time. Any sign of rain and wind and they stay in their homes, using up the honey they have already collected. (We would too.) Comvita beekeepers work with the bees all year round to keep them healthy and to help them breed their brood.

When you buy Manuka honey, you want to make sure that it contains the compounds that you would expect. This is where the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) comes into play: It is an independent certification process that ensures the presence of these key compounds: leptosperin, dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and MGO. (DHA is converted to MGO.) UMF ratings – 5+, 10+, 15+, 20+ – are assigned based on the MGO and leptosperin levels detected in each batch of honey.

Part of the reason the levels of these compounds vary has to do with the nature of the nectar: ​​bees can fly for miles in any direction, and manuka flowers are much less productive than, say, clover flowers. Given a choice, bees can opt for the non-Manuka strains – again, a relatable behavior – and this results in a less pure honey. To get a true monofloral Manuka honey, beehives are placed near a high volume of Manuka flowers at the right time under the right climatic conditions.

Another reason for variation is the manuka trees themselves. Trees with nectar with high DHA content lead to honey with higher DHA and MGO content.

You can taste the difference too. “As you increase the honey types, you will notice a difference in taste due to the amounts of these compounds,” says Evans. “Manuka honey is a pretty dark honey, and that’s generally because some of the compounds are colored, like flavonoids and phenolic compounds – the same compounds you find in dark vegetables.”

Evans recommends looking for lower UMF grades if you’re trading a regular honey and want to take advantage of some of the benefits. “You would use your 5+ and your 10+ glasses in smoothies or on your cereal as a daily use,” she says. “I reserve the 15+ and then the 20+ for more specific reasons.” She recommends adding this honey to a warm drink or taking it straight from the spoon. You can also apply it directly to your skin and it makes a pretty incredible one-ingredient face mask.

What we particularly appreciate about Comvita is the commitment to tread lightly on earth so that all this magic can exist in a single glass. The company is committed to being carbon positive by 2030 and having 100 percent compostable or recyclable packaging by 2025. A third of its locations are powered by renewable solar energy. 6.4 million trees have been planted and managed in New Zealand since 2016: Planting native trees restores soil-eroded land, which helps clean waterways and promotes aquatic biodiversity and local habitats.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor should it be used as a substitute for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article contains advice from any doctor or health care professional, the views expressed are the views of the expert quoted and do not necessarily reflect the views of goop.

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