Is Manuka Honey Really Better Than Normal Honey?

Superfood or sting?
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When you were a kid the only honey you knew of was the squeezie one you'd drizzle on sandwiches, breakfast and straight in your mouth.

These days, though, we're obsessing over new (and expensive) types of honey like raw honey, rooftop honey and the most popular, manuka honey.

Manuka honey is touted as a superfood 'healer' which can treat wounds, cold and flu, sore throats and more. But how real are these claims, really?

First let's take a look at what manuka honey really is, and how it differs from other types of honey.


What is manuka honey?

"Manuka honey is simply honey derived from the bees that feed on the manuka plant, which are found in New Zealand," Anna Debenham, accredited practising dietitian of The Biting Truth, told HuffPost Australia."

In Australia, the trees used to make manuka honey are Jellybush and Golden Tea Tree.

Professor Peter Molan of Waikato University in New Zealand was the first to report the unusual activity of manuka honey, and began testing its action against a wide range of different bacterial species in the mid 1980s.

"Manuka honey usually has a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating on the package which means it has been tested for antibacterial activity," Parker said. "This is similar to the SPF number you'd see on sunscreens -- the higher the UMF the greater the antibacterial effects."

A honey bee on the manuka flower collecting pollen and nectar.
A honey bee on the manuka flower collecting pollen and nectar.
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What's the difference between manuka honey, raw honey and regular honey?

Regular or commercial honey is pasteurised (heated to high temperatures) and filtered to kill any yeast that may be present in order to prevent fermentation. Regular honey is smooth and uniform in colour.

"Raw honey is honey in its natural state, meaning it has not been strained, filtered or heated. It can be made from any type of flower or plant, including manuka," Debenham said. "The minimal processing of raw honey is often why it includes particles of wax, propolis and pollen."

As stated above, manuka honey is honey sourced only from the manuka plant and contains different UMF ratings depending on the product.

"Compared to regular honey, manuka honey looks darker and thicker and is more difficult to spread."

Is manuka honey good for you?

Throughout history honey has been used as medicine, particularly to treat wounds and skin infections. This is due to honey's antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, whereby high sugar and low pH inhibit microbial growth. And research has indeed shown that wound size decreased significantly when honey was applied to wounds.

Many different types of honey also produce microbe-killing levels of hydrogen peroxide when glucose oxidase (an enzyme incorporated into honey by bees) reacts with glucose and oxygen molecules in water. So, when honey is used as a wound dressing it draws moisture from the tissues, and this reacts to produce hydrogen peroxide, clearing the wound of infection.

The Conversation.

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But does it matter which honey you use? In this manuka honey review, researchers state manuka honey provides an additional healing property -- non-peroxide antibacterial activity.

"Manuka honey is sometimes referred to as medicinal honey because it has a high antibacterial activity and has been shown to be good for wound healing and can help to relieve sore throats, mouth ulcers, sore gums and possibly indigestion," Debenham explained.

However, Anna Parker, accredited practising dietitian of The Biting Truth, is not convinced that manuka honey is more superior than other honeys.

"It is the antibacterial component of manuka honey that is thought to set it apart from regular honey," Parker told HuffPost Australia.

"However, there is limited evidence to suggest it is a much superior product. Also, it is important to note that not all manuka honeys are equal and it can be difficult to know what you're getting."

Is manuka honey a healthy sugar alternative?
Is manuka honey a healthy sugar alternative?
TaPhotograph via Getty Images

It's also important to highlight that most of us aren't putting manuka honey on our skin -- we're eating it. So, beyond helping to heal wounds and skin infections, does manuka have benefits when ingested?

While manuka honey might help treat a sore throat or gingivitis by inhibiting bacteria, according to The Conversation, "the main components responsible for the antimicrobial activity won't survive the digestion process".

Honey, including manuka honey, does contain prebiotics which help to feed the good bacteria in our gut, so in this respect honey may help support a healthy gut.

Is manuka honey better than regular or raw honey?

The answer to this depends on what you're using it for and how much you're willing to spend. If antimicrobial properties and quality are important to you, then manuka honey may be your pick.

But, as Parker explained, at the end of the day, manuka honey is still honey and should be eaten in moderation.

"While manuka honey may have some health benefits, honey is still an added sugar, and hence we want to limit consumption," Parker said.

"There are a range of wholesome foods (for example, herbs, spices, veggies, fermented foods) that provide our bodies with antibacterial compounds, and so it is not necessary to receive these from honey."

"While manuka honey may be slightly superior, it's important not to get carried away as the evidence is still not conclusive," Debenham added.

Garlic, herbs and spices are also nature's antibacterial foods.
Garlic, herbs and spices are also nature's antibacterial foods.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is honey a good substitute for sugar?

Although honey does come from a natural source and undergoes minimal refining, Parker recommends us to approach honey as we do regular sugar.

"Honey is still a form of 'added' sugar and is processed by the body in a similar way to other types of sugar," Parker said. "The good news is that honey takes longer to digest than table sugar, providing more sustainable energy."

When it comes to added sugars like honey, we want to keep serves small and as a 'sometimes' food.

"A serve of discretionary foods that provides around 600 kilojoules is 60 grams of honey (about one tablespoon). That is, a serve of honey is one tablespoon," Debenham said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends adults and children limit their intake of added sugars to fewer than 10 percent of total daily energy intake.

"Below five percent is even better and carries additional health benefits," Debenham said.

"It is important to keep in mind that many of the added sugars in our diet come from prepackaged foods and drinks, and therefore physically adding sugars to foods (honey to toast or tea) may push us over our five or 10 percent daily limit of added sugars.

"Although the perception is that honey is healthy, its high sugar content (about 80 percent) should make us wary."

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