When many of us hear "manuka honey," the first thing that comes to mind is the episode of Broad City in which Abby is high on pain medication and goes to Whole Foods. There, she's convinced her deranged stuffed animal, Bingo Bronson, has come to life and is pressuring her to buy specialty health foods. One of its picks includes "manuka honey, so reasonably priced," it says. This episode aired three years ago, but lately manuka honey is everywhere, and there seem to be lots of promising health benefits.
But don't take Bingo Bronson's word for it. According to Nural Cokcetin, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney, who studies the antimicrobial and prebiotic properties of honey, there have been many scientific studies showing that manuka honey stimulates wound healing, and has anti-inflammatory and potent antimicrobial abilities, meaning it can kill microorganisms that cause infections, including antibiotic-resistant superbugs. "While humans have used honey in general for its healing properties for thousands of years, the medicinal properties of manuka honey are recognised globally as being superior to other honeys," she says via email.
So, what makes manuka honey so magical compared to other types of honey? In general, we know that certain types of honeys (ones that are high in sugar, have a low pH, and produce hydrogen peroxide) tend to have very powerful antimicrobial properties, Dr. Cokcetin says. Manuka honey checks all those boxes, plus there's a naturally-occurring chemical, called methylglyoxal, found in the nectar of manuka plants, which gives manuka honey an extra antimicrobial kick, she says.
Before you jet to Whole Foods to stock up on manuka honey, there are a few things you should know. First, manuka honey is usually sold with ratings, numbers, or symbols that indicate the antibacterial strength of active honey, Dr. Cokcetin says. "There is currently no widely accepted gold standard for measuring the activity of the honey, and this makes deciding on a particular honey complicated for consumers," she says. For example, you might see, "NPA" (non-peroxide activity), "UMF" (unique manuka factor), or "MGO/MG" (methylglyoxal) on labels. In short, the higher the number, the higher the antimicrobial activity, she says. But depending on how you plan to use your manuka honey, higher does not necessarily mean more appropriate.
If you want to use manuka honey as a food or tonic, then there's no need to buy a "more active" type, Dr. Cokcetin says. In fact, the more potent types tend to be more expensive. "Manuka honey with high activity may help to soothe a sore throat (strep throat), but the antimicrobial activity is unlikely to survive beyond this in the digestion process," she says. If you wanted to use manuka honey to help heal a wound, like a cut or scratch, then you'd need to get something sterile, and with a high level of antimicrobial activity, she says. You can always ask your pharmacist to help you order the right honey-based products or bandages.
Or if you're looking for something more reasonably priced, keep in mind that all types of honey can have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and prebiotic properties, Dr. Cokcetin says. In other words, manuka honey is great, but all honey is good for you, honey.