CELEBRITIES like Scarlett Johansson and Ed Sheeran swear by the powers of manuka honey. A small pot can cost easily command top dollar.
But how can consumers be sure they’re buying the real deal? Manuka honey has become one of New Zealand’s star exports over the last decade thanks to its purported health benefits – spurred on by celebrity endorsements and a trend towards superfoods. While there are no official industry figures for manuka honey, the total export value of all New Zealand honey has risen from 36 million New Zealand dollars (26.4 million US dollars) in 2006, to 315 million dollars in 2016, according to Apiculture New Zealand CEO Karin Cos.
However, the spike in export value over this time has undoubtedly been driven by manuka honey. While beekeepers received prices from 9.50 to 13 dollars for 1 kilogram of bulk clover honey in 2016, they cashed in if their bees had been visiting manuka blossoms, receiving anywhere from 12 to 148 dollars for the same amount.
But why are customers around the world willing to fork out top dollar for a small jar of the sticky, sweet product? There is a growing body of research that says manuka honey is beneficial for many ailments – everything from dressing wounds and aiding digestion, to boosting immunity and soothing sore throats. The celebrity endorsements also don’t hurt: Actress Scarlett Johansson uses the honey on her skin, while singer Ed Sheeran had requested it in one of his performance riders for his throat. Honey connoisseurs also say the taste differences can be detected.
“Like wines, there are differences in taste between ordinary honey and manuka honey,” says John Rawcliffe, a spokesman for the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA). “There are also taste variations between different growing regions around New Zealand where manuka honey is produced,” he adds. Manuka honey has a unique, strong, slightly bitter barley-sugar taste that is typical of darker honey. Cos describes its aroma as damp earth and its appearance as anywhere from dark cream to dark brown.
To produce manuka honey, beekeepers move their hives, often by helicopter, to remote rolling hills where the manuka shrub is the predominant vegetation just before the plant starts flowering. By doing this, the chances of getting relatively pure manuka honey are higher. This is because other plant types that are good nectar sources typically flower before or after manuka in a given area. However, it is still impossible to get pure, 100-per-cent manuka honey from a hive, according to honey producers Bees and Trees.
“Invariably there will be some pre- or post-manuka nectar flow foraging that the bees will do. While they’re incredibly smart creatures, bees don’t follow human instructions well. You can’t tell them to only work the manuka flowers,” Bees and Trees says. Compounding the honey purity dilemma is the fact that counterfeiters have tried to cash in on manuka honey’s popularity by labelling other honey varieties as manuka honey. As a result, industry groups have developed grading systems, backed up by research, to guarantee consumers the authenticity of their “liquid gold.”
The UMFHA, which represents approximately 75 per cent of manuka honey beekeepers in New Zealand, has developed the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating system.
“UMFHA members have their honey tested and graded according to the association’s comprehensive standards, which include testing for key signature markers, especially leptosperin, which confirms that a product is genuine manuka honey,” Rawcliffe says. Consumers can find manuka honey with various UMF ratings at distinctly different prices.
“The difference [in ratings] is due to the confirmed abundance or level of unique signature markers found in the tested manuka honey,” Rawcliffe explains. Following allegations in the media that much of what is sold overseas as superhoney from New Zealand was counterfeit, New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) began developing a scientific definition and test in 2014.
MPI has for the past three years run a programme aimed at developing criteria for identifying manuka honey.
The nectar, leaves and pollen were collected from more than 700 plants, representing 29 species from 12 regions in New Zealand and five states in Australia. Scientists also analysed more than 800 honey samples, representing over 20 different honey types, from 120 beekeepers within New Zealand to find attributes that were unique to the manuka plant and would flow through to the honey.
After publishing the definition for what constitutes manuka honey earlier this year, the government is currently seeking feedback on proposed export requirements for honey, including the definition. Once this work is concluded, honey will need to pass the scientific test before it can be labelled as New Zealand manuka honey. Consumers in export countries can then be confident that the product they are shelling out big bucks for is the real deal, every time. – dpa