Manuka is often said to be the healthiest honey in the world, but it’s also the most expensive, with a small jar of the highest quality Manuka costing upwards of £60. But why is it so expensive? And is it really as healthy as advocates claim?
Manuka Honey Benefits
Honey is antibacterial and also contains a number of antioxidants. We’ve discussed the benefits of this natural sweetener before and noted how it can help with an array of issues and has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes.
Manuka is like a super honey, as it contains more antibacterial compounds and could therefore provide even more health benefits. Most of these additional benefits are provided by a compound known as methylglyoxal. This compound can actually be found in many varieties of honey, but it’s most potent in Manuka. The concentration of this compound gives Manuka honey its rating, known as the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) or MGO (the abbreviated name of the compound itself).
The problem with antibacterial substances—as discussed in our articles on the benefits of thyme and on spices like coriander seeds—is that most of the benefits come from using it topically, such as to clean wounds. However, some research suggests that it can provide many health benefits when consumed orally, as well.
For instance, it can help to soothe a sore throat, both by coating the throat and by attacking some of the bacteria responsible for it. (1) It may also have a similar action in the stomach and the gut, going someway to fight H. pylori, as evidenced by a 1994 study. (2)
Manuka for Hair and Skin
Honey in general is very good for your skin and hair. It’s soothing, nourishing, and also provides an added antibacterial effect. This is true whether you’re using a basic clover honey or a premium Manuka honey, but there may be some added benefit to the latter (assuming you can bring yourself to slather that £50 jar all over your skin).
It has been used as a home remedy for acne, rashes, irritation, and minor wounds and grazes, and it is also often added to shampoos and conditioners (albeit in small amounts) to provide some of the same benefits for your hair.
While there could be some promise for Manuka in the treatment of irritating skin conditions, there isn't a great deal of research suggesting it can benefit your hair. If you have a tub or two, you’re better off eating it or diluting it to make a home skin care remedy.
How to Read Manuka Honey Quality Ratings
The good thing about single-source highly specialised products is that they tend to have very strict quality control legislature, making it hard for low-quality alternatives and counterfeits to slip through the net, and Manuka is no different; however, there are a few different grading systems and it pays to know what these mean.
The average consumer buys this product simply because it has “Manuka” on the label, and others seem to associate a higher price with a higher quality. But the difference from one product to the next can be quite considerable, and price isn’t always a good indicator. The grading systems used for Manuka include:
If it’s a genuine Manuka honey from New Zealand, then it should have the UMF label, and the higher this is, the better it is. The UMF grade goes from 5 to 16+. A ratings between 10 to 15 is considered “medium”, with labels of “low” and “high” for scores on either side of this.
But of course, nothing’s ever that simple, and Manuka has more than one grading system. There is also something known as MGO, which stands for “methylglyoxal” and, like the UMF, relates to the honey’s methylglyoxal concentration. This number can range from 83 to 850+. Anything above 550 is considered “high”, anything below 250 is “low”, and everything else is “medium”.
This is a grading system used by a single producer named Wedderspoon. The system has been approved by a leading body, and the company also spend a lot of time and money researching into this honey, so they are generally seen as an authority in this niche and are a good source of high-quality products.
Why is Manuka so Expensive?
A 250g jar of basic blended honey costs less than £2 on the average supermarket shelf, while a jar of Manuka can cost the consumer anywhere from £15 to £60 depending on the strength (that’s up to £1.70 per tsp on average).
So, why’s it so expensive?
Manuka is only produced in New Zealand, which means every jar has to be imported and has to be shipped over 11,000 miles before it can get in your shopping trolley. But these large distances are only partly to blame, and most of the cost comes down to supply and demand.
As with premium spices like vanilla and saffron, Manuka production is very labor intensive. Honeybees can’t be told which plants they should and shouldn't get nectar from, so hives have to be carefully positioned in areas abundant in Manuka bushes and contain nothing that can contaminate the harvest.
They are often located well out of the way of roads and built-up areas, to the extent that some producers need to fly in their hives by helicopter. To make matters worse, Manuka only flowers for a few weeks, and if there is particularly bad weather during that time, then the harvest will suffer.
Manuka also undergoes strict testing to obtain its labels and to get the stamp of approval. Of course, no natural product is easy to obtain, and complications surround even the rarest of products all over the world, but it also comes down to supply and demand. A limited amount of Manuka is produced every year, and if consumers are willing to pay more to get their fair share because they think it's healthier, then the manufacturers will place a higher price tag on their annual harvest.
Is it Worth it?
This is for you, the consumer, to decide. Research suggests that it is healthier than other varieties, but if you’re consuming it purely for its apparent medicinal qualities, don’t have a big budget, and can’t stand the taste, you may be better off with another variety. There isn’t a huge difference between a strong dark honey like Greek thyme honey and a Manuka honey (certainly not one that warrants a 300% to 500% price increase) and if you add some antibacterial herbs like parsley and thyme to the mix, and maybe consume them in a tea along with a spice like turmeric, the end result could be much healthier (and tastier) than Manuka.
Of course, we’re a herbal tea company with a passion for Greek products, so we’re not exactly unbiased, which is why we have to emphasise the point that it all comes down to preference.
Other Honey versus Manuka
There are a few other honey varieties that contain strong antibacterial compounds, and while these are not necessarily as potent as Manuka, they are often available for a fraction of the price and could be just as effective for a number of ailments. Such is the case with eucalyptus honey, which also has that strong, medicinal flavour, but will only cost you about £2 to £5 per jar, or around £25 for a kilo of good, raw eucalyptus honey.
Feel free to experiment, to try a number of different varieties, and to see what works best and what is the most cost effective. If you like the taste of honey (who doesn’t!?), then you’ll have a lot of fun trying the many different flavours on the market, from sharp, citrus honeys with a pale colour to complex and intense honeys with a deep dark hue.
They all have their merits, most are delicious, and all of them taste great drizzled on a buttery crumpet or dunked into a cup of tea. Speaking of which, if you find a really good, strong honey, try it with an equally good smoked tea like Lapsang Souchong—trust us, it’s a marriage made in heaven for black tea drinkers.