Why Mānuka Honey is So Expensive

Why Mānuka Honey is So Expensive

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If you have a hankering to try one of the rarest kinds of honey in the world, then Mānuka honey is what you’re looking for.  

Mānuka honey is a New Zealand specialty. The Mānuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium) is an evergreen shrub or small tree with white (or sometimes pink) flowers and small, rigid leaves with a sharp tip. The plant is found in New Zealand and Australia, but almost all of the world’s Mānuka honey production happens in New Zealand. Exports of this specialty product are worth up to $204 million annually, which is expected to quadruple by 2028.  

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But it doesn’t come cheap. In its purest form, Mānuka honey can cost up to $99 per 100 grams (3.5 ounces, or one-fifth of a pound), more than 100 times the price of regular honey. The rare honey weighs about 1% of all the world’s honeys.  

Why is it so rare? The Mānuka tree is temperamental and easily affected by weather conditions. The nectar from the flowers only have a 12-day blooming period, and the honey itself has just a two- to six-week harvesting period (not counting any adverse weather conditions).  

Mānuka flowers in bloom.

Additionally, the Mānuka tree is not especially abundant and often grows at higher elevations, making it difficult for beekeepers to place hives and harvest honey. Often transportation (of both bees and beekeepers) happens by helicopter, with a corresponding price.  

According to the New Zealand Honey Company’s website, “It takes the perfect alignment of controllable and uncontrollable factors like climate, soil fertility, plant species and bee health for the highest quality Mānuka honey to be produced. During the short Mānuka bloom, any weather — from low temperatures to too much wind — will affect the ability of bees to collect enough Mānuka nectar. The pH and mineral levels in the soil greatly impact the quality and health of the Mānuka tree, and ultimately affect the quality of the Mānuka nectar.”  

To complicate matters, because of Mānuka honey’s value, much crime has centered around its production, with hundreds of reports of theft or even poisoning of bees. In other words, there’s a lot of uncertainty, vigilance, luck, and expense involved in Mānuka honey production.  

Mānuka honey is in demand not just for its culinary uniqueness but for its health benefits. As with all honey products, there are legendary health claims about Mānuka honey. However, the one claim that appears to have a scientific foundation (though not confirmed by clinical trials and thus technically unproven) is Mānuka honey’s additional antibacterial and antimicrobial properties not found in other kinds of honey.  

Mānuka honey has been touted as a medical superhero. It is used to treat various ailments, including eczema, acne, burns, skin ulcers, gastric ulcers, wounds, irritable bowel syndrome, periodontal disease, upper respiratory infections, and even signs of aging.  

As a result, many skin-care régimes center on Mānuka honey, fueled by celebrity obsessions. Once Kourtney Kardashian, Victoria Beckham, and other luminaries started touting the benefits of Mānuka honey ingredients, the gold rush was on.  

Mānuka honey is distinguished by quality standards imposed by the New Zealand government, which safeguards the honey’s unique properties. These standards came about because of unethical attempts to degrade and/or counterfeit the honey. Honey, in general, is already widely adulterated with cheap high-fructose corn syrup. Because of its scarcity and extreme demand, Mānuka honey products are even more vulnerable to counterfeiting, mislabeling, and diluting.  

To guarantee the genuine product, the Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) authorizes independent third-party laboratory testing and certification in compliance with New Zealand government regulations and standards. The honey is tested using ultraviolet light for three compounds: dihydroxyacetone, methylglyoxal (MGO), and hydroxymethylfurfural. Testing not only determines the presence of these compounds but the concentration. Ultraviolet light determines the wavelength of each compound since each compound has slightly different properties. The MGO level determines the strength of Mānuka honey. MGO is found in all honey, but it is present in a much higher concentration in Mānuka honey.  

The honey is also tested for leptospermum, which is a marker unique to the nectar of the Mānuka flower. The Mānuka honey is given a Unique Mānuka Factor (UMF) grading. The higher the UMF grading, the higher the concentration of signature compounds found in the honey.  

Because less-effective testing systems don’t measure all three signature compounds, these under-tested products are more vulnerable to fraud. One of the most common schemes is to dilute the Mānuka honey with other honey, at which point the fraudsters can apply whatever market level they wish on the label. False Mānuka products are also adulterated with artificial chemicals, such as DHA (commonly found in self-tanning products).  

Les Stowell, a member of the Te Arawa tribe of New Zealand’s Māori people and who oversees Mānuka production on the Onuku Māori Land Trust, notes: “Approximately 10,000 metric tons of Mānuka honey are sold around the world each year, but only approximately 1,700 metric tons are actually produced in New Zealand.” In other words, an astounding 83% of Mānuka on the market isn’t as pure or potent as it claims to be.  

For all these reasons, the New Zealand government does its best to safeguard both the quality and the reputation of genuine Mānuka honey. This includes using labels that are uniquely coded and scannable (via smartphones) so consumers can verify the authenticity.  

All Mānuka honey sold for export must be tested by a Ministry of Primary Industries-approved facility. Additionally, the UMFHA also does random testing of Mānuka honey worldwide from jars bearing the UMF-certified label to help deter counterfeiting.  

So how does Mānuka honey taste in comparison to regular honey? People have reported the flavor as strong, with a thicker texture and earthier “chestnutty” overtones. The honey is described as not as sweet as regular honey, with a very smooth — almost creamy — consistency.  

Is Mānuka honey worth the price? That’s an individual decision. What’s certain is no other honey in the world is so rare and unique that it must pass rigorous laboratory standards before being sold.  

However, not everyone is a fan of Mānuka honey. Not because anything is wrong with it, but because they feel it’s overblown. “Don’t get me wrong, Mānuka honey is great for you and super tasty,” observed one skeptic, “but the truth is that Mānuka honey is very well marketed and is not the superfood people think it is. If you pay $100 for a jar of this, then you’re a victim of marketing.”  

Another person dryly observed, “Why is it so expensive? In five words: It’s rare, and it’s hyped.”  

Medical marvel? Rare treat? Overhyped marketing? You decide.  

Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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