There are plenty of waspish words flying around the globe at the moment. Sedate university professors are becoming increasingly hot and sticky under their white collars about honey.
For many years New Zealand’s Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato has spent its time demonstrating the impressive antibacterial properties of the region’s Manuka honey. The proven effects of some of this monofloral honey has led to it being used by many NHS Trusts as part of their wound care program, and in 2007 the US Food and Drug Administration approved it for “wound management”, handing New Zealand an important slice of the world’s four billion dollar wound care market.
Manuka honey is tested in laboratories to confirm if it is “active”. If it attains a rating of 10 or more it is given a Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) for its antibacterial effectiveness and can command a price 10 or 20 times higher than other honeys. The really good news for the Kiwis was thought to be that the Manuka plant only grows wild in New Zealand, giving the country a natural monopoly.
But in late 2012 Scotland started a worldwide buzz about its heather honey and Portobello honey. Separate teams of researchers from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow’s Veterinary School demonstrated that their local honeys were as effective at battling bacteria, yet were available locally at a fraction of the Manuka honey’s price.
Waikato University’s head biochemist, Professor Peter Molan had argued that the antibacterial efficacy of UMF honey was so incredible that “nothing like that (has) ever been found anywhere else in the world.”
While the Scottish researchers don’t deny active honey’s powers at fighting staphylococcus aureus – the most common wound infecting bacteria – pseudomonas aeruginosa, E.coli and even MRSA, they do dispute the idea that only bees feeding upon the pollen of the manuka bush can produce such a marvellous natural medicine.
Edinburgh-based microbiologist, Dr. Lorna Fyfe, picked up the gauntlet when she discovered that honey from beehives in the Portobello Community orchard was equally effective at killing bacteria as manuka honey. Although the manuka honey contained 10 times more polyphenols than the Portobello sample, the Scottish brand was sufficiently acidic and contained enough polyphenols and hydrogen peroxide to provide the antioxidant activity necessary to defeat bacteria.
Dr Patrick Pollock from the University of Glasgow led a team of researchers who tested 29 honey products ranging from Manuka medical grade honey to supermarket brands. Eighteen of them were found to contain bacteria and so were removed from the trial, but eight were effective against all bacteria they were tested on. Heather honey from Inverness was discovered to be able to kill even MRSA superbugs.
“Honeys derived from one type of flower were shown to be the most effective, and while Manuka is currently the only medical grade honey, the study reveals that other honeys may be just as suitable for such purposes,” Dr. Pollack claimed in an interview held after he published his findings in The Veterinary Journal
There is no doubt that honey and other bee products contain phenomenal medicinal properties. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the bee for just this reason. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish v Kiwi spat, the production of more medical grade honey is important for the on-going fight against MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bugs.
“Fighting harmful bacteria has become a global challenge,” Dr. Fyfe explained. “Bacteria are constantly evolving to become resistant to antibiotics and the race is on to develop alternative antimicrobial agents which can fight a range of different infections.” Honey contains many different ingredients and so is proving to be more effective against bacteria that mutate to side-step antibiotics.
From the other side of the globe, Professor Molan agreed that active honey “has a very broad spectrum of action. It works on bacteria, fungi and protozoa. We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms.”
It is hoped that with further research different honeys may be identified as being most effective against specific bacteria and the gap caused by failing antibiotics may be closed.