Is your manuka honey really worth the money?
By Jerome Burne
Last updated at 7:35 PM on 02nd February 2009
Manuka honey can cost anything from £5 to £35 a pot
Over the past few years, manuka honey from New Zealand has earned a reputation as a bit of a wonder treatment.
Research has shown that the honey - produced by bees who feed off the manuka bush - has powerful antibiotic properties and can help combat MRSA, fight infections, reduce wound inflammation and help with skin conditions such as acne and eczema.
But there are so many brands available, at vastly different prices (you can pay anything from £5 to £35 for a pot), how do you know which one really packs a good bacterial punch? And does spending more guarantee a better product?
Until about a year ago, the solution would have been to rely on the honey's Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating (they range from 10 to 25). The higher the rating, the more potent - and usually more expensive - the honey.
But according to some manuka honey manufacturers, this UMF system is unreliable. The ratings are made by the Active Manuka Honey Association (AMHA) which compares a batch of honey against the bacteria-killing ability of different concentrations of a standard disinfectant.
'But two tests done at different times on the same batch of honey can give very different results,' alleges Kerry Paul, chief executive of Manuka Health, one of the 'rebel' honey manufacturers.
The AMHA retorts that results vary only by a few points and, anyway, it takes this into account when rating the honey.
But Mr Paul believes there's a better way - by measuring methylglyoxal (MGO) content. This compound is found in high concentrations in manuka honey - up to 100 times greater than ordinary honey - according to German researchers, and is thought to give it its antiseptic edge.
Some manufacturers are now switching to Mr Paul's new system of ratings. To add to the confusion, there is a third rating out there - the label on the honey contains the word 'active', followed by a number (from 10 to 25). But the MGO and UMF camps agree this 'active' rating has no scientific basis and is not regulated.
Later this year a fourth standard is due to appear - developed by Dr Peter Molan, head of honey research at Waikato University, Hamilton, New Zealand. Although he's not yet willing to divulge the details, it seems to be an upgrade of the UMF rating - which he originally devised and even he claims needs changing.
So where does all this leave the consumer? Ken Allen, managing director of a firm which makes wound dressings impregnated with manuka honey for the NHS, says: 'We use the same honey you get in the supermarket, but we then sterilise and purify it because we are held to much stricter standards.'
He says neither UMF nor MGO is ideal, but believes the rest of us don't need to worry about how potent the honey is: 'It doesn't have to have a high rating. Even one as low as UMF 10 can heal leg ulcers.'
He adds that using manuka honey at home on minor burns and cuts is probably fine, but would advise the public to steer clear of using it for more serious complaints such as heartburn or the gastric ulcer bug H. pylori.
'No trials support this use, and I'd be very careful about using shop-bought manuka on any serious or deep wounds,' he says. 'When we've analysed samples for purity, we've found microscopic traces of stuff such as paint and even lead.'
So, if you want only a gentle antiseptic, the lower rating of either UMF or MGO should do the trick.