The History & Story Behind Manuka Honey
Tuesday, 01 March, 2022

The History & Story Behind Manuka Honey

For wellness, skincare and so much more, manuka honey is now celebrated as one of nature’s unique little gifts. But the magic properties of the manuka plan are no new discovery — the plant itself was a staple of Maori traditions.

Although we didn’t know until 2008 that methylglyoxal was the powerful wellness component in manuka honey, the use of the plant far transcends this century. People have been aware of the importance of the manuka for far, far longer.

The manuka plant: its history & its honey

Growing on both the north and south islands, the manuka plant finds its home in the wetlands and dry hillsides in coastal and low alpine areas of New Zealand. It’s an evergreen shrub or a small tree, containing white flowers, with rigid, sharp-tipped leaves. Most grow up to between 2 and 5 metres in height.

Whilst it might sound pretty insignificant and inconspicuous, it’s got quite the history.

A traditional medicinal ‘treasured possession’

The plant has a rich heritage in New Zealand, which starts, as you might imagine, with the indigenous people: the Maori.

Maori attached immense significance to traditional ways of healing, which included the use of a number of native plant series. They had a special word for the manuka plant — taonga, or ‘treasured possession’.

Maori used the boiled inner bark of a manuka tree as a way of treating stomach problems, with balms made of the manuka tree’s gum used on wounds, burns and other skin problems, as well as for moisturising. The manuka plant’s leaves were also often boiled as a way of treating any respiratory problems, coughs or mild illnesses.

In fact, traditional Maori medicinal practices, a system known as Rongoā, is enjoying quite a modern day resurgence.

Of course, it wasn’t long until the arrival of Europeans on the beaches of New Zealand. The famous British explorer, James Cook, is believed to have birthed manuka’s ‘New Zealand tea tree’ moniker around 1760, a nod to the beneficial effect of boiled manuka leaves. Captain Cook and his crew made use of the brew’s potency for treating skin and digestive illnesses — it’s believed they even brewed manuka beer.

European settlers also extracted the oil from the leaves for medicinal and cosmetic products, as well as making use of its timber for furniture and tools.

Despite its dainty, pretty white flowers, manuka is a hardy plant. As well as providing a low cover for other trees and species to grow — earning it a reputation as a life-giver to New Zealand’s forests — it has interesting adaptations to fire. Manuka is one of the first plant species that regenerates on burned or cleared land, able to thrive in extremely limited environmental conditions.

The emergence of manuka honey

Manuka honey can only be produced by the European bumble bee, which did not exist on either of New Zealand’s islands until around 1839. It was at this point that Mary Bumby, a beekeeper and European settler, is believed to have introduced them — and they began to do what they do best — pollinate plants.

This, of course, included the manuka plant — and so manuka honey was born.

Although the plant has many unique quirks and properties, honey from it is produced in the same way as any other regular honey: bees pollinate its little white flowers, take the manuka nectar back to the hive and do their industrious, incredible thing.

Up until the 1930s, it may surprise you to learn that manuka honey was actually considered a low quality product; beekeepers would give the honey away for free to dairy farmers, who would feed it to their cows.

The story goes that the farmers noticed how cows that fed on this particular honey did not suffer from infectious diseases as frequently as animals who had not. This was probably one of the earliest indications there was some type of special properties about manuka honey.

The manuka plant’s flowers only bloom for around four weeks every spring. As you’ll imagine, with such a short window, modern beekeepers need to work quickly, strategically and creatively, often crossing mountain rivers multiple times — even using helicopters — to maximise yields.

The birth of the modern manuka honey industry

In the 1980s, scientists began to learn more about the interesting properties of manuka honey, leading to growing consumer demand. As word spread, New Zealanders were understandably anxious to protect the integrity of this special export product and its market.

To support this, in the late 1990s, scientists, researchers and manuka honey producers began to come together to pioneer science in manuka honey. Their aim: to better understand the science, benefits and compounds within this incredible product.

Quite rightly, they wanted to promote and preserve New Zealand’s manuka honey industry. A side benefit of this would be to reassure consumers of the authenticity of any manuka honey products they buy.

In 1998, working with New Zealand’s honey producers and the Ministry of Food, the UMFHA introduced ‘UMF’ — Unique Manuka Factor. It is a formally registered quality mark and rating, showing that a manuka honey product has been laboratory tested to contain certain natural ‘markers’ and compounds, in doing so guaranteeing its authenticity and New Zealand origin.

With the emergence of these rating systems came a way of helping consumers identify genuine manuka honey, as well as the various grades available.

Moving into the 21st century — the emergence of methylglyoxal as a key compound

In 2008, Professor Thomas Henle and his team from the University of Dresden made a groundbreaking discovery: it was the very high levels of a certain naturally-occurring compound in manuka honey — methylglyoxal — that is responsible for its unique properties for wellness, gut health, skin care and cosmetics.

At this point, many manuka honey brands began to pioneer testing to measure levels of this special substance. Soon after followed the MGO rating system, which you’ll find on many of today’s manuka honey products. It has a number that follows ‘MGO’ to denote the amount of methylglyoxal in mg per kg of honey.

With a clear marketing message and simple ways of demonstrating MGO content to consumers, manuka honey’s popularity truly took off throughout the 2010s. Export volumes of manuka honey from New Zealand climbed every year, with the market value reaching NZ$424m by 2020.

… and the future of manuka honey?

It’s no secret that the wellness industry is booming — and is set to continue doing so for quite some time yet.

Amidst the backdrop of the global pandemic, we’re all seeking more natural, herbal, health and wellbeing-focused products to add to our lives. Just in the UK, consumers are spending just as much as they ever have on wellness — a figure estimated to be £487 per head per year, to be precise.

It’s easy to see why manuka honey is perfectly placed to take advantage. Indeed, the market is forecast to grow by 5.9% every year until 2028.It’s incredibly versatile — perhaps the ultimate natural wellness product.

Although so much has already been discovered, scientists continue to conduct research into the benefits of manuka honey. Any discoveries promise to further solidify manuka’s status as a wellness wonder product.

Mānuka Health: for wellness-packed, 100% authentic New Zealand manuka honey products

We’re proud to be the official UK home of Mānuka Health, a leading range of certified, laboratory-tested and genuine manuka honey products.

Their collection includes manuka honey jars that scale up in MGO potency, as well as some other interesting products including drops, wound honey and even throat spray!

If you’re looking to learn more about this incredible product — including its uses, benefits and much more — be sure to head over to The Hive, our collection of expert insights on manuka’s magic.

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