Manuka honey from New Zealand is having a moment. Ultra-rare batches are whetting buyers’ appetite, selling for over NZ$2,000 ($1,746) a jar — making it one of the most expensive foods on Earth.
Puriti by Canterbury-based Midlands Apiaries recently launched a 250g jar called Grand Cru (borrowing from the French wine term for “great growth”), available for a mouth-watering NZ$2,195; while jars of The True Honey Co.’s 2017 Rare Harvest manuka honey, priced at £1,390 ($2,400) for 230g at Harrods in London, are flying off the shelves of the department store.
The 2017 Rare Harvest honey reportedly has the highest unique manuka factor (UMF) ever produced at 31+, more than six times the UMF of manuka honey usually found in supermarkets. Grand Cru’s UMF 30+ is also significantly rare — “once in 10 harvests”, according to Puriti.
New Zealand honey makers have long used the UMF grading system, denoting the levels of purity of active antibacterial compounds, namely leptosperin, DHA and methylglyoxal. Gradings typically range from UMF 5+ to UMF 25+. Supply of UMF 30+ and above is thus incredibly small, “at just a few hundred kilogrammes a year at most,” says Adam Boot, the international brand manager at Puriti.
Asked if he knew of a more expensive honey ever released, Boot says: “I believe there was once a rare honey from a rare bee discovered in a cave. There was about 20kg and it apparently sold for about NZ$16,000 per kg. Other than that, our product would be right up there with the most expensive. In the end, it is the rarity and unusual natural quality that determines the price.”
Derived from the nectar of the manuka tree that’s native to New Zealand, manuka honey has been much sought after since the 1980s, when renowned local biochemist Professor Peter Molan first reported on the distinct antimicrobial properties of the plant. In fact, the Maori population had long known about the healing properties of manuka (“manuka” is a Maori term for the Leptospermum scoparium tree), using its leaves and bark for medicinal purposes.
Honey has also been widely used for years as a remedy for wounds and skin infections. This is due to its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, with its high sugar levels and low pH hindering microbial growth. Research also shows that wounds improve significantly when honey is applied.
Manuka honey, with its higher levels of beneficial compounds, is said to offer superior health benefits. “It’s actually the manuka pollen that gives manuka honey its powerful health-giving properties. It has higher levels of antioxidant phenolic acids than other honey, key to reducing cellular damage. Antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral manuka honey can also boost your immune system and even improve your gut health,” says London-based celebrity nutritionist Rick Hay.
Still, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for nature’s liquid gold. Over the past few years, numerous reports have surfaced over the quality and authenticity of manuka honey, resulting in a number of products being removed from store shelves.
To clamp down on imitations and improve consumer confidence, the New Zealand government in 2017 introduced a scientific definition for manuka honey: To be considered genuine, it must contain a combination of four chemicals derived from nectar and one DNA marker from manuka pollen. The UMF grading system remains the definitive yardstick for purity.
However, there are other looming threats to the increasingly saturated market, one that is worth some NZ$300 million a year, with projections that it will hit NZ$1.2 billion within the next decade. In a bitter battle over the precious nectar, the New Zealand government has thrown their weight (to the tune of NZ$5 million) behind the country’s honey producers, who are seeking to trademark the name “manuka honey” in China. This would essentially bar their Australian counterparts from branding their products as “manuka” honey in one of their largest export markets, which could see losses of up to a billion dollars in export revenue.
In 2017, the United Kingdom Trade Mark Registry ruled in favour of New Zealand, stating that “although the plant Leptospermum scoparium is grown in areas outside of New Zealand, it is known by different ‘common’ names in those territories. Therefore, it is accepted that the term ‘manuka’ would be seen as designating a specific plant variety grown in New Zealand”.
Scott Coulter, former CEO of Comvita, a major manuka honey producer, believes their actions are justified: “Just like champagne, which can only be recognised as from a certain area of France, manuka honey can only come from New Zealand.”
This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.