Kourtney Kardashian hawks its health benefits. Counterfeiters and chemists labor to unlock its molecular secrets. And now it’s at the center of an international branding war.
It’s honey, but not just any honey. It’s Manuka honey, a sweet extravagance from New Zealand that sells for a sticky $2.50 an ounce–six times the cost of conventional honey–and has attracted a slew of famous fans. Kardashian, who has a promotional contract, claims Manuka is responsible for her robust health and soft skin. “On our show when we’re filming, our crew would eat Manuka by the spoonful,” the reality show star recently told Amazon’s style channel.
More than 7,000 miles away from Hollywood, biologist Simon Williams is trying to help Australia cash in on the Manuka craze. He treks through the Australian bush searching for trees in the same genus as Manuka, dodging wildlife at every turn. “One wombat kept trying to give me love bites on my feet,” he says.
But not everyone thinks that the trees Williams is surveying are legitimate sources of Manuka honey–created by bees who gather their nectar. Real Manuka, they say, can only come from New Zealand, which is why that country’s Manuka Honey Appellation Society recently submitted a certification trademark application for the words “Manuka Honey.” If the application succeeds, New Zealanders will have exclusive use of the international brand, in the same way that only sparkling wine from a certain region of Northern France can legally be called champagne.
Manuka honey has more than just the lure of exclusivity. While there’s no evidence it protects Kardashian from the common cold, Manuka does have useful antibacterial properties. Most honeys kill some bacteria because they contain peroxide, which eats away at the bugs’ protective cell walls. Manuka honey, by contrast, can attack a bacterium in many ways: disrupting communication, inhibiting movement, and destroying digestive enzymes, as well as breaking down its cell walls. This intricate attack strategy could make Manuka honey more effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA.
Beyond its antibacterial benefits, Manuka honey (and other honey) has some wound-healing properties. When health-care workers put strips of honey over burns, for example, researchers found they healed four to five days faster. “They draw the infection out of the wound, they kill the infection, and they heal the wound underneath so the tissue regenerates,” says Peter Brooks, a biochemist who advises Williams at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. He currently studies Manuka’s anti-inflammatory properties.
With these health benefits and celebrity endorsements, demand for Manuka is growing fast–the country’s honey exports leapt to $285 million in 2015 from $202 million in 2014. To no one’s surprise, New Zealand is fighting to keep the coveted brand for itself. John Rawcliffe, a representative of New Zealand’s Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association, refers to Australian Manuka as “Tea Tree” or “Jellybush” honey.
But the Aussies aren’t convinced there’s any meaningful chemical difference between Aussie and Kiwi Manuka. “The active ingredients in the honeys are the same,” says Brooks.
Brooks is confident because so much work has already been done to identify the key chemical components of Manuka honey–mostly because Manuka honey producers have to protect against counterfeiters. Dishonest honey makers have been known to mix Manuka with other honeys, or mislabel the honey altogether. They also sometimes heat their honey to try to fool the authenticity tests, feed Manuka’s unique chemical markers directly to the bees, or even shake the pollen from a live Manuka tree directly into their honey, according to Adrian Charlton, head of chemical profiling at the United Kingdom’s Food and Environment Research Agency, a joint governmental and commercial laboratory that ensures food quality and safety in the UK.
To try to foil the fakers, Kiwi researchers initially tested for a certain amount of a compound associated with the honey’s antibacterial properties: methylglyoxal. It’s derived from the carbohydrate dihydroxyacetone, which comes from the nectar of the Manuka flower. However, fraudsters can heat the honey or store it for a long time to artificially turn the available dihydroxyacetone into methylglyoxal. They could also make dihydroxyacetone in a lab, adding another layer to the honey security problem.
Charlton’s team and other industry and governmental regulators needed a surefire way to identify authentic Manuka honey. Finally, in 2014, a Japanese researcher named Yoji Kato identified a complex compound that isn’t easy to replicate. He called it leptosperin, and it’s now the standard measure for determining whether a honey labeled Manuka is the real thing.
Except that there’s a problem: Aussie Manuka contains leptosperin, too, according to Brooks. “The New Zealand Manuka product and the Australian Manuka products are equivalent,” he says.
Try telling that to a Kiwi. “The environment definitely changes things,” asserts Rawcliffe. He argues that discrepancies between the soil, light, and weather in Australia and New Zealand make a difference in the quality of the honey–just as they do with wine. “The wine out of Napa Valley is completely different from the wine out of New Zealand,” Rawcliffe says. He’s backed up, sort of, by a study in the New Zealand Journal of Botany that concluded local soils change how much nectar a Manuka plant produces–though its antibacterial properties remain the same.
But the trees at the center of the dispute actually grow in many countries, in all kinds of conditions. They’re so hardy and fast-growing that they have become an invasive species in some places, though there are more Manuka trees in Southern Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else, where indigenous Maori people used the tree to make fence posts, spears, roofing, and even scented toilet oil.
The Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association argues that this cultural and geographical heritage should give Kiwis exclusive rights to the word “Manuka.” They have lodged an application with the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office for a certification trademark, which would secure the name “Manuka Honey” internationally. They could then take honey producers who use the Manuka name without approval to court. (Roquefort, France used it on American William Faehndrich after he sold sheep’s milk blue-mold cheese from Italy and Hungary under the moniker “Roquefort Cheese.”)
No matter how the trademark dispute turns out, Brooks, a proud Australian, thinks there’s rich irony in New Zealand trying to claim ownership of the Manuka. “The odd thing is that New Zealand Manuka is actually an Australian plant that blew across the Tasman” Sea, he says. “We argue they’re trying to copyright an Australian plant.”
That’s a contention that the Kiwis, no doubt, will dispute.