The department of biological sciences at the University of Waikato, in New Zealand, is home to the Waikato Honey Research Unit, a group of scientists who are investigating the value of manuka honey for infected wounds. Its website explains that regular honey has antibacterial properties—benefits resulting from the low levels of hydrogen peroxide it naturally contains. Depending on its nectar origin, the antibacterial activity of honey can vary a hundredfold. Manuka honey is unique in that it contains high levels of nonperoxide antibacterial compounds, allowing it to heal wounds better than honeys containing peroxide. Products sold as “active” manuka honey should contain a greater concentration of these nonperoxide antibacterial compounds and thus be more powerful for this purpose. To consistently measure these nonperoxide antibacterial compounds, the research unit developed an activity rating for manuka honey (known as Unique Manuka Factor, or UMF) on a scale ranging from 12 to 18, with the highest score having the most powerful antibacterial activity. The UMF factor for an individual manuka honey brand can be found on the brand’s website and often on its label.
Stephen Dahmer, M.D., family medicine attending physician at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, notes his experience with manuka honey: “As a physician practicing in Whanganui (a district on the North Island of New Zealand), I saw remarkable results achieved by patients applying manuka honey as treatment for leg and skin ulcers, diabetic ulcers, pressure sores, wounds, and rashes, some of which were formerly unresponsive to other traditional medical treatments.”
Less research has been done on manuka honey as an ingestible treatment, although manufacturers claim that its antibacterial properties help cure the causes of sore throats, colds, and ulcers. While such statements are anecdotal and not scientifically tested, there is agreement that manuka honey is delicious, so with the exception of a honey allergy (or for children younger than 12 months, who should not be fed honey), the worst that can come from trying it is the enjoyment of a nice snack.
Manuka honey is an unusual form of this sweet food, with evidence of medicinal properties. However, in medicine, skeptics abound, and what is needed are scientifically rigorous clinical trials to determine its value in improving human health, particularly for conditions where this gentle food might be preferable to another type of therapeutic intervention.
Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.