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Australian manuka honey the super ingredient to fight superbugs?

There may be a sweet new reason to buy Australian honey

New research suggests that Australian manuka honey has the same, if not greater antibacterial properties as the famed New Zealand version and may serve as an antidote to superbugs.

"We've been interested in the medicinal properties of Leptospermum [i.e. manuka-type] honeys for a while now," said UTS' Dr Nural Cokcetin, the lead author of the study, published in PLOS ONE.

"What makes these honeys really interesting is that they can kill superbugs, like Golden Staph. Superbugs are bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections and are resistant to most of the antibiotics that we have available to us currently.

"Although all honeys have some level of antibacterial activity, some honeys that are made from the nectar of Leptospermum plants have a very potent activity that we don't see in other types of honey."

While Cokcetin says researchers knew about the antimicrobial properties in certain types of honey, Australian manuka has not been extensively studied (surprising perhaps given that we have more than 80 Leptospermum species while New Zealand has just one).

For the first time, we know the Australian species have antimicrobial properties to rival those of New Zealand.

"We also show that the antibacterial activity of Australian manuka honey is long-lasting [for several years], which is in contrast to conventional antibiotics," Cokcetin says. "This has benefits for extending the shelf life of medical honey products and makes them not only an effective but also an economical treatment option for skin infections and wounds."

This is significant, Cokcetin says, as researchers look at ways to combat the "global crisis of antibiotic resistance [when bacteria become resistant to the killing effects of antibiotics, i.e. become 'superbugs', and we can no longer clear infections with the antibiotics we have currently available to us]".

"One of the main reasons we are interested in the antibacterial activity of medicinal honey is because of the honey not only kills bacteria on contact but the bacteria don't become resistant to honey."

It is news that Cokcetin hopes will help to raise the profile of Australian honey, an industry comprising of about 12,400 registered beekeepers that produces up to 30,000 tonnes of honey annually.

What to look for

If you want manuka honey with the active ingredients, you want to look for a UMF or MGO rating. UMF and MGO both relate to the antibacterial activity of the honey.

A claim of "active manuka honey 20+", for example, means you are still purchasing standard table honey.

"The UMF [Unique Manuka Factor] is a percentage rating of the antibacterial activity of manuka-type honeys, it is also called non-peroxide activity [NPA] outside of NZ," Cokcetin explains.

"We determine the activity using a 'bioassay' and it involves testing the honey against a specific bacteria related to Golden Staph, and compare this activity to a known antiseptic [phenol]. The final result is a percentage equivalent to phenol, and the higher the number the more 'active' the honey is [sort of like the SPF ratings for sunscreen]. We would say that an activity of 10 per cent or higher is therapeutically significant.

"MGO is just one chemical that is in the honey and is the main contributor to the activity [UMF/NPA] of manuka honey. The MGO test is a chemical one, and it measures the levels of that particular chemical in a honey sample, for example in a honey sample with 10 per cent UMF, the MGO levels would be approx. 260 mg/kg."

Although most of us consider honey a food, Cokcetin says in a clinical setting, the honey would be used for topical applications (skin infections, cuts, burns, wounds).

"When we talk about eating the honey, we would expect it to have some activity on contact with the bacteria that cause strep throat for example, but as it progresses down to the stomach much of that antibacterial activity would be lost," she explains.

"At this point, as it enters further down the digestive tract, we would look at another therapeutic property of the honey called the prebiotic activity – this refers to the ability of the honey to boost the numbers of the beneficial populations of the intestines/gut, helping with overall health.

"This is related to the different types of sugars available in the honey [i.e. not the UMF/MGO and not exclusively related to manuka honey – lots of honeys have this effect and this is what I found in my PhD]."

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