When you’re sick and have a sore throat—do you drink tea with honey, or at least reach for some honey-flavored lozenges? The healing nature of honey is no secret: The substance was used as a remedy across cultures in ancient times to treat everything from wounds to indigestion.
However, there is one type of honey with its own flavor profile on our radar (earthy, at times minty) that boasts more nutritional properties and therapeutic benefits called manuka honey, and we have New Zealand to thank for it.
What is Manuka Honey: A Brief History
Manuka honey comes from bees that pollinate the Manuka bush, which is a plant native to New Zealand. Although the native Maori population had been using manuka honey for its homeopathic benefits long before celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and TV personalities like Dr. Oz jumped on the Manuka honey bandwagon, Manuka honey didn't find commercial success until the '80s. When Kiwi biochemist, Dr. Peter Molan defined its impressive antibacterial properties in 1980, interest piqued domestically. It didn't capture U.S. interest until the '90s, when the local honey industry coined the term, "Unique Manuka Factor."
What is Unique Manuka Factor (UMF)
Unique Manuka Factor, or UMF is a collective term for manuka's antibacterial properties. A minimum UMF of 10+ means the honey meets the global standards of antibacterial activity in the honey, as well as purity and quality standards, according to New Zealand based honey association, Unique Manuka Factor.
Scott Coulter, CEO of Comvita, the brand that helped establish the UMF labeling standard, told AFAR magazine, "Just like champagne—which can only be recognized as from a certain area of France—manuka honey can only come from New Zealand.”
How to Choose the Best Manuka Honey
Real manuka honey runs pricier than conventional honey, and prices fluctuate still based on the UMF factor. "A jar of UMF 50 (the highest grade) can fetch upwards of $200 on U.S. grocery shelves," AFAR magazine reports. The higher the UMF, the more potent the honey, like the SPF rating in sunscreen.
"Anything ranging from UMF 10–UMF 15 is a useful level, and anything UMF 16 and up is considered a superior quality," writes Rachael Link, MS, RD in a blog post for Dr. Axe.
However, beyond using manuka as a tasty sweetener, it may be worth investing in a jar if you're looking for an all-natural remedy to some common ailments. To ensure you're getting true manuka honey, look for the following four indicators labeled on your honey jar:
- A UMF trademark label
- That the product is sold by a New Zealand UMF-licensed company and labeled in New Zealand
- The UMF-backed company’s name and license number
- A UMF rating of 5–16+
Furthermore, in 2017, New Zealand's Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) established authenticity standards for their sweet export, meaning, if you're buying Manuka honey that was packed in Kiwi land, the honey is the real deal.
Most conditions that plague your stomach—including small bacterial intestine overgrowth, acid reflux, and low stomach acid—can be mitigated with manuka honey. Why is that? The substance works to balance out the acid in your body. "Because of the natural antibiotic and antibacterial properties found in Manuka honey, it is a great medicine for any bacteria-related digestive disorder," writes Link.
How to use it: Mix it into a favorite meal or drink.
Burns and Wounds
The next time you burn yourself while cooking, you may want to dab some manuka honey on instead of applying ice. Manuka honey has been used to treat wounds and can also help reduce inflammation. For example, research in the Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products states: “The use of honey leads to improved wound healing in acute cases, pain relief in burn patients, and decreased inflammatory response in such patients.” And, a literature review, published in the journal Wounds, acknowledges "the available evidence supports honey, and manuka honey specifically, as an important tool for wound care."
How to use it: Apply like any healing ointment.
Sinus infections are a common (and very pesky) occurrence. However, emerging research around using manuka honey to treat sinus infections has found that using manuka honey in the nasal passages may fight off the bacteria that causes infection in the first place.
How to use it: Make your own homemade manuka honey nose drops.
Be aware that there is a risk of reaction to the honey if you are allergic to bees.
Since manuka honey boasts antibacterial properties, it’s believed to stop the inflammation associated with these conditions. And when it comes to dry skin and eczema, manuka honey may help your skin stay hydrated. "At this time, there are few clinical trials to support these claims, but taking into account its proven antimicrobial and healing properties, it’s believed honey can help with these skin conditions," writes Link.
How to use it: As a face mask.
Gingivitis and Cavities
Prone to cavities and other tooth sensitivities? Because manuka honey has antimicrobial properties, science suggests it can help prevent cavities and gingivitis. One study showed that when participants chewed or sucked on manuka honey, there was a 35 percent decrease in plaque and a 35 percent decrease for those with gingivitis in the number of places bleeding occurred. Also, "the calcium, zinc, and phosphorus found in Manuka honey are all important nutrients for healing teeth," writes Link.
How to use it: Chew or suck on the honey.
Insomnia and Sleep Troubles
If you’ve ever experienced trouble sleeping, manuka honey may be able to help you get some serious shut-eye. If you add some honey to a glass of warm milk at bedtime, "it slowly releases the glycogen needed for essential bodily functions during sleep," writes Link.
How to use it: Mix some into warm milk or non-caffeinated tea and consume before bedtime.
Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association. Grading System Explained.
Ministry for Primary Industries, Manatu Ahu Matua. Manuka Honey. March 28, 2019.
Yaghoobi R, Kazerouni A, Kazerouni O. Evidence for Clinical Use of Honey in Wound Healing as an Anti-bacterial, Anti-inflammatory Anti-oxidant and Anti-viral Agent: A Review. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2013;8(3):100-4. doi:10.17795/jjnpp-9487
Rhodes T, Molan P. Honey: A Biologic Wound Dressing. Wounds. 2015;27(6):141-151.
Lee VS, Humphreys IM, Purcell PL, Davis GE. Manuka Honey Sinus Irrigation for the Treatment of Chronic Rhinosinusitis: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2017;7(4):365-372. doi:10.1002/alr.21898
English HK, Pack AR, Molan PC. The Effects of Manuka Honey on Plaque and Gingivitis: A Pilot Study. J Int Acad Periodontol. 2004;6(2):63-7.