Manuka Honey: A Look at Its Healing and Medicinal Benefits

The New Zealand honey is quickly becoming the hottest holistic medicine product on the market, treating gastrointestinal, dermal and other conditions.

 Wedderspoon Organic’s Fiona Nelson (right) applies a manuka-honey cream to the face of Wedderspoon co-owner Alison Marcelli. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
Photo by Jared Castaldi

See also “Bee Averages: The Numbers Behind the Sticky Stuff

When Fiona Nelson has a bout of acid reflux, gets a pesky scrape or wants a bit of a beauty pick-me-up, she reaches for the same little jar of manuka honey. She and many others are convinced that it holds one of holistic medicine’s best-kept secrets—and that it won’t remain under the radar for long.

Little known domestically but highly touted abroad for its theriac qualities, manuka honey is an antimicrobial agent that’s potentially useful in treating a wide range of conditions, from digestive issues to arthritis to skin disorders. As the founder of the U.S. branch of the U.K.-based Wedderspoon Organic, Nelson became convinced of the honey’s healing powers while living in her native England. But she’s found that her pitch has been a little harder to make on our side of the pond.

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“When we first started importing this product, we had to go around to all the stores in the area and explain what it was. No one had ever heard of it,” says Nelson. “In this country, people have been brain-washed into popping a pill when they’re sick, rather than using a natural remedy.”

Manuka honey is applied to wounds in U.K. hospitals—much like Neosporin or any other topical antibacterial. Domestically, Derma Sciences’ Medihoney bandages provide a similar treatment. Even so, few clinical trials have led to any conclusive evidence in regards to manuka honey’s effectiveness, and Nelson can’t make any FDA-approved health claims.

Nonetheless, hydrogen peroxide is a component of honey, and some types have other antibacterial qualities. Manuka honey has methylglyoxal, derived from the conversion of dihydroxyacetone, found in the nectar of flowers. The higher the concentration of methylglyoxal, the stronger the antibiotic effect. Studies also show that the flavonoids in manuka demonstrate various anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticancer properties in vitro. The honey also has increased antioxidant activity in animal studies.

“We have many medical doctors suggesting to patients that they can use this product for homeopathic purposes, especially plastic surgeons,” says Nelson.

Dr. Rebecca Witham uses manuka honey in her office and at home. “It has a high sugar content, which dehydrates the bacteria,” says Whitham, who’s the medical director at Paoli Hospital’s Wound Healing Center.

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Certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be treated with manuka honey, and Witham finds it effective in reducing wound edema and eliminating dead tissue. “If a dermatologist has to burn something off, the manuka honey softens and removes the tissue—and it will heal faster, too,” she says.

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Wedderspoon’s Canadian branch was founded in 2005 by Nelson’s friends in Vancouver, who were looking to explore an untapped market. A year later, Nelson agreed to help by selling a few jars in Malvern. The business exploded from there, becoming one of’s top 100 grocery purveyors in 2009. More recently, Wedderspoon earned awards from Vancouver’s Mid-Island Science, Technology & Innovation Council.

You can’t find manuka honey anywhere. New Zealand’s climate is optimal for the bush, and few other environments are effective incubators. Nelson and her friends tried their luck in Canada. Out of the 10,000 seeds planted, a mere two bushes survived.

These days, a 12-ounce jar of manuka honey sells for more than $30. But that’s hardly been a deterrent. Nelson says Wedderspoon’s sales have increased by 1,538 percent since 2007, and they surpassed $2.5 million in 2012. More than 260,000 jars of honey have been sold in the past six years, and that doesn’t include ancillary products like travel packets, throat lozenges and lip balms.

Then there’s the much-buzzed-about Queen of the Hive face contour mask with manuka honey and bee venom, which tricks the skin into thinking it’s been stung, prompting the release of collagen and elastin. Similar formulas have been used by Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Middleton, who swear by the skin-tightening properties.

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Anecdotal accounts of manuka honey’s anti-inflammatory benefits can be traced back to the late 19th century. “Beekeepers who had arthritis found that, after they were stung several times, their symptoms were alleviated,” Nelson says. “We found that adding bee venom to the honey enhanced its anti-inflammatory prop-erties. Rather than getting stung over and over again, people can now take this method orally.”

Interestingly, Nelson is allergic to bee stings. Yet, she’s able to ingest the honey and apply it to her skin without any adverse effects. Still, the labels recommend consulting with a doctor and doing a patch test to check for any reaction.

As word has spread locally about Wedderspoon, the demand has increased for the all-natural panacea, and the honey business in New Zealand has become increasingly aggressive.

“The competition is getting cutthroat,” Nelson admits. “More and more people want to get their hands on it. There’s a reason it’s called liquid gold.”

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See page 3 for Bee Averages: The Numbers Behind the Sticky Stuff

Bee Averages

The numbers behind the sticky stuff.


Honey-producing colonies in Pennsylvania.


Average pounds of honey produced in each colony.


Average pounds of honey an American consumes annually.


Number of flowers a worker bee visits in one collection trip.

2 million

Average number of flowers visited to produce one pound of honey.


Average miles flown to those 2 million flowers.


Miles per hour that a honeybee flies.

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