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What Is Manuka Honey and Why Is It So Expensive?

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And why are governments fighting over it?


There’s a debate raging in the Southern Hemisphere, and it all comes down to naming rights over a coveted, and very expensive type of honey praised for its health benefits. Australia and New Zealand are both jockeying for shares of the manuka honey market, which has taken off in recent years due to the honey's growing popularity as a superfood. New Zealand appears to have the upper hand in an attempt to trademark "manuka," Bloomberg reports, but Australia is pushing back.

But why are two major world markets fighting about glorified bee excretions? Here’s everything you need to know about manuka honey, its purported health benefits, and what’s behind this new governmental push for name ownership.

What is manuka honey?

Facebook/Waitemata New Zealand

Manuka honey comes from bees that pollinate Leptospermum scoparium, or the manuka bush, which grows predominantly in New Zealand and also in Australia. Other species of this bush grow all over the world, but do not produce the flowers bees need in order to produce manuka honey.

The origins of the word "manuka" are Maori, the native language of New Zealand, and certain parties argue that only certified New Zealand manuka honey should actually bear the name. While the plant grows in both locations, it is apparently much more common in New Zealand, leaving the Australian market to work with limited resources as demand rises.

New Zealand manuka honey even has an advocacy group on its side: the UMF.

What is the UMF?

The Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association bestows a quality trademark upon manuka honey, and works with growers and producers to inform the public about the product’s benefits. The association maintains standards that brands bearing its trademark have to uphold to retain the label, and it hires independent companies to check samples of products. It is also leading the charge to trademark the name, and last year filed an application with the government to protect the product, according to Bloomberg.

John Rawcliffe, a spokesman for the UMF, believes the honey should have the same kind of regional protection as Champagne. He told Bloomberg by way of explanation, "I could take some corn and make some whiskey but I can't call it Scottish whisky."

Where does it come from?

Manuka honey is made in both New Zealand and Australia, and comes from a flowering plant that is in the tea tree and myrtle families.

Manuka flower

How much does it cost?

A 250-gram jar of manuka honey costs around $30 USD. It may not be available at the average grocery store, but natural foods stores and Whole Foods usually stock it.

How is it different from wildflower or clover honey?

Manuka honey differs from other types of honey because of its bioactive properties. It contains dietary methylglyoxal, which forms naturally in the manuka flower’s nectar and is said to give the honey its healing properties.

What does it taste like?

It has a "sharp" taste aside from its sweetness, which many say is unique to this product, and its texture is not as smooth as other honey varieties.

What purported health benefits are associated with it?

Dr. Peter Molan, a university professor of biochemistry in New Zealand, began researching the health benefits of Manuka honey in 1981.

The honey has been said to assuage digestive ailments, including acid reflux and fungal infections. It can also reportedly help alleviate upper respiratory issues, like sinusitis, allergies, and sore throats, in addition to boosting the immune system. Like all honey, it is said to fight infection.

Celebrities like cookbook author Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah sidekick Dr. Oz, and famous face Kourtney Kardashian subscribe to the health claims associated with the honey. As prices rise so too have counterfeits.

Do nutritionists agree with these health claims?

Nutritionists are often split but many tend to agree with the health claims associated with manuka honey. Scientists have studied how it destroys bacteria, and trials have been conducted that demonstrate it can help heal skin wounds. Nevertheless, there are some situations where nutritionists caution against eating the honey: Children under 12 months can be susceptible to botulisim and should not consume it due to risks in its production and storage. The high glucose content of honey makes it potentially harmful to diabetics. Bees & Trees Manuka Honey

Bees & Trees Manuka Honey

So why are two countries fighting over naming rights to the honey?

In short, money. The product reached a world market price of over $1,000 per kilogram earlier this year, making it one of the priciest exports out of Australia and New Zealand, and shows no signs of waning in popularity. If New Zealand succeeds in trademarking the name it could have a monopoly on a very sweet, very niche cash crop.

There's a Battle to Trademark Manuka, the Champagne of Honeys [Bloomberg]
• Manuka Honey Reaps Rewards in Overseas Markets [Stuff]

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