Healthy foodies have fallen head over heels for manuka honey, a type of honey that hails from New Zealand. Pronounced "MAH-nooka," it's named after the manuka bush, from which bees gather nectar and pollen. In turn, these bees produce manuka honey, explains Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, nutritionist and author of Eating in Color, who recently went to New Zealand to learn about manuka honey.
Honey in general has long been praised for its antibacterial properties. But manuka honey is thought to be an even stronger infection fighter, and some studies suggest that manuka honey's benefits extend to treating skin problems and complications from diabetes.
To find out what all the buzz is about, we looked into the research on manuka honey benefits and spoke to experts about where to find it, how it's produced, and if it really is the next trendy superfood.
What is manuka honey?
“All honey has some antibiotic qualities,” Largeman-Roth tells Health. “In typical honey, it is hydrogen peroxide that provides this benefit, whereas in manuka honey, it’s UMF that is antibiotic.” UMF stands for Unique Manuka Factor, a grading system that uses a scale of 5 to 20 to gauge each batch of honey's antibacterial strength.
The UMF is determined by levels of three compounds found naturally in manuka honey. (The UMF Honey Association oversees the grading.) Leptisperin is a nectar from the manuka bush, DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid, and methylglyoxal is an antibacterial component.
The higher the UMF number, the stronger manuka honey’s antibacterial properties—meaning it can be used to treat wounds, cuts, burns, and even bed sores, says Largeman-Roth. Types of manuka honey that possess a UMF content of 12 or higher are actually considered medical grade, and can be added to bandages to treat wounds, she says.
Manuka honey benefits
Why does manuka honey have such a good reputation for healing wounds and staving off infection? “Honey is very low in moisture content,” says Largeman-Roth. “When you put it on a wound, all the liquid in the wound gets drawn into the honey because it has the ability to absorb the moisture. By sucking up all the impurities, the honey protects the body against infection.” Medical grade manuka can also restore the natural pH of the skin and remove dead tissue when used topically, she adds.
Robert Graham, MD, a physician specializing in integrative medicine and the founder of Fresh Med NYC, also says that manuka honey can be used in medical settings. "There is evidence for the use of manuka honey for acute burns, diabetic ulcers, and arterial ulcers," he tells Health. "Particularly for wounds, honey prevents infections, speeds up healing, and has also been shown to decrease the risk of developing community-acquired MRSA." (MRSA is a potentially dangerous staph infection).
Though most studies that support the use of manuka honey have been done in animals rather than humans, the research has demonstrated its safety and efficacy when compared to a placebo. "The greatest risk is simply verifying the source of [manuka honey]," adds Dr. Graham. "Quality and purity really matter when we're talking about food-based therapies."
Anyone who is allergic to bees should use manuka honey with caution. "Otherwise, it's a win-win with little side effects," says Dr. Graham.
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Where to buy manuka honey
To get familiar with brands that sell certified manuka honey, head to the UMF Honey Association’s website. If you’re in the market for manuka, it’s not tough to find it in stores or online. Everything from UMF5+ manuka honey ($28; amazon.com) to manuka lozenges ($8; amazon.com) and manuka adhesive pads ($27; amazon.com) are all available online. Sweet!
How to eat manuka honey
Manuka honey and regular honey have about the same sugar content, though some reports suggest manuka honey could have a slightly lower glycemic index. Yet overall, manuka can be consumed just like regular honey: added to sweeten tea, spread on toast, drizzled on top of desserts, and more.
One difference, however, is in its texture. Unlike standard honey found on supermarket shelves, manuka honey isn’t a liquid at room temperature. “Rather, it’s a spreadable, thick consistency made of very fine stable crystals,” says Largeman-Roth.