Kourtney Kardashian scoops up raw spoonfuls of the stuff. Laura Dern dips it into her green tea. Scarlett Johannson dabs it on her glowing skin. Novak Djokovic uses it to boost his tennis game. Even Dr. Oz is in love with this product known as "liquid gold." But it's not just celebrities who are into the sticky stuff. Wellness-obsessed consumers are lining up for this enticing — and expensive — substance.
What is this mythical concoction? It's honey. Manuka honey (also known as mānuka honey), to be precise. It's native to New Zealand, and it's a bit different than the stuff you find at the local supermarket.
"New Zealand manuka honey, sourced from the indigenous manuka plant Leptospermum scoparium, is a unique and complex food containing over 2,000 individual natural compounds, twentyfold more than ordinary pasture-type honeys such as clover," says Corey Blick, vice president of Comvita North America, a New Zealand-based beekeeping company that produces manuka honey, in an email interview. "It is these compounds that give manuka honey its range of health benefits."
What Are the Potential Health Benefits?
Blick notes that due to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, Comvita cannot make any official claims about perceived health benefits of manuka honey or any other food products. But Blick suggests that manuka honey has several potential effects on the human body
"The most extensively studied and remarkable bioactivity of manuka honey is its antimicrobial and wound healing effects. It also exhibits anti-inflammatory, immune-modulatory and antioxidant bioactivities," says Blick. "These bioactivities work together synergistically to give manuka honey its therapeutic effects."
But manuka is not unique among honeys in its storied ability to help ward off infection. “Honey is very low in moisture content,” said Frances Largeman-Roth, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and author of Eating in Color in a 2018 article for Health magazine. “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.”
So what's the science behind the claims that manuka is any different than the typical commercial-grade honey you can buy in any grocery store?
One of the most well-recognized compounds in manuka honey is methylglyoxal. "Methylglyoxal is the key compound in manuka honey responsible for its special antimicrobial properties," says Blick.
But manuka honey isn't a one-trick pony: There are other rich compounds that lend manuka honey its supposed healing properties. One of those is leptosperin, which may have some anti-inflammatory benefits, though that's still being researched.
Why Is Manuka So Expensive?
According to Blick, manuka honey ranges from $2 per ounce to more than $14 per ounce, depending on its grade or Unique Manuka Factor level, which we will get to in a minute The better the grade, the higher the price — and the more bioactive compounds like methylglyoxal.
"The plant itself is very rare. It's difficult to harvest because the flower is only open for 12 days, and sometimes we have to use helicopters to collect this honey," John Rawcliffe, administrator for the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA), told Business Insider.
The Unique Manuka Factor (UMF)
So how can you be assured that you're getting a quality product and not some inferior rip-off? This is where the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association comes into play. The UMFHA serves as the leading body behind the New Zealand honey industry. Manuka honey growers that are licensed as part of the UMFHA are subject to regulations that they must comply with in order to receive the UMF quality label and ensure that their product meets the requirements of UMFHA's honey grading system.
"These requirements are wide ranging but include things like independent laboratory testing of product samples to confirm the presence of unique signature markers, in the required combination, found in mānuka honey before it is allowed to go on sale carrying the UMF quality mark. The product must also be from New Zealand and adhere to the New Zealand Government's definition and standard for mānuka honey," says Rawcliffe, in an email interview.
How Does Manuka Honey Taste?
But what if you're not that interested in the purported medicinal properties of manuka honey? Well, some customers still prefer the earthy taste of the honey compared to what they might find in the corner grocery store. "Many consume it for wellness reasons, however we find many also just like the thicker, creamier taste of our manuka honey," says Blick. "It undergoes a special creaming process to even-out the naturally occurring honey crystals, making it a smooth mouth feel."
Some consumers also enjoy the honey because of its trendy New Zealand roots, much like how you might relish drinking a fine wine from the south of France. "Like wines, we are now seeing regional varieties within New Zealand that have their own distinctive taste and colouration," says Rawcliffe.
The Fight Is On
However, that unique New Zealand flair has brought on an onslaught of controversy. The fervor surrounding this earthy treat has sparked a complex, yearslong — and still ongoing — legal battle that threatens to damage the Kiwis' relationship with their Aussie neighbors.
While manuka comes from the nectar of the Leptospermum scoparium's flower, the plant goes by many other names such as Tea Tree and Red Damask. Although this shrub is native to New Zealand, as the value of manuka honey soars, other countries seek to capitalize on this proverbial gold mine. Australian companies are getting in on the manuka honey cash grab. However, New Zealand beekeepers insist that the Australian version cannot properly be called manuka honey, and they're taking Australia to court over the matter of who can really trademark manuka honey.
New Zealand honey producers filed applications for trademarks not only in New Zealand, but also in the European Union, the U.S., Britain and China. Australian producers have challenged some of those claims with their own paperwork. There are also concerns over copycat manuka honey brands popping up elsewhere as demand for the product soars, especially among the growing middle-class in China.
"This is a very complex matter not too dissimilar to the years of legal and political battles that took place to protect the Champagne brand," says Rawley. "Protection of the term 'mānuka honey' for New Zealand passed an important hurdle, with the announcement that the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) had accepted the term as a proposed certification mark." IPONZ ruled in favor of the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society, which Rawcliffe says represents the majority of manuka honey producers in New Zealand.
Beyond protecting the manuka honey brand, there's another important reason for keeping the honey in its country of origin: cultural preservation. The cultivation of manuka honey has its origins in the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, who refer to manuka as their treasure (taonga).
"Manuka is unquestionably a Maori word with significance to the Maori people and a deep connection to Aotearoa (New Zealand). To use the term outside of the New Zealand context with no consideration to the cultural significance is inappropriate in the 21st century," says Blick.
The UMFHA also notes that consumers come to expect a certain level of authenticity and high quality from UMFHA-certified manuka honey products. "We want to assure consumers that what they are buying when they purchase products that carry the UMF quality mark, mānuka honey name and New Zealand badge of origin is genuine, not fake," says Rawcliffe.
Therefore, keeping the trademark in New Zealand could ensure that high-quality seal of approval and prevent imitation honey from flooding the market.
"At the end of the day, cheap perfume is cheap perfume. If you want the genuine product then you have to be prepared to pay for it along with the quality and processes that stand behind it," says Rawcliffe.