By Dr. Dustin Ballard, Marin Independent Journal, 6/11/2012
Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in a series in which Ballad explores the differing perceptions about health and wellness between the United States and New Zealand.
Over the past several months I've been scrutinizing health-specific differences between Kiwi and American societies. I must admit that this project has been a bit of a brain-buster and I don't feel that, to borrow a Kiwi phrase, I've got it "properly done and dusted." Just when I was getting discouraged, however, I found something about health in New Zealand that's clearly different than back home — the Kiwis have healthier honey!
Specifically, I'm referring to manuka honey produced by bees collecting nectar from the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium). This bush, which is quite plentiful throughout New Zealand, is rather ordinary looking — something like what you might expect if you crossed an azalea with rosemary. But, similar to the mold of penicillin, the manuka bush has surprising properties hidden within its mundane appearance.
People have known for centuries that all types of honey have therapeutic traits — as evidenced by the litany of home remedies using honey for its sweet and soothing assets. In fact, before antibiotics were developed, honey was a common dressing for infected or non-healing wounds.
But, starting about 170 years ago, when the European honeybee was introduced to New Zealand (interestingly, the native New Zealand bees did not forage from the manuka bush), Kiwis began to notice that honey made from the nectar of the manuka was distinct…
In the early 1980s, Peter C. Molan, a biochemist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, conducted a simple yet elegant experiment that illustrated the antibacterial activity of manuka honey. He added the enzyme catalase (which is present in human saliva, blood and other tissues) to two different types of honey — traditional clover honey and manuka honey. In doing so, he disabled the hydrogen peroxide in both honeys — an important step, as up to that point, scientists credited hydrogen peroxide alone with giving honey its antibacterial properties. In Molan's experiment, the peroxide was nullified and (as predicted) the clover honey stopped killing bacteria while the manuka honey's activity was unaffected.
This discovery sent Molan and others on a 25-year quest to discover the biochemical ingredient in manuka that provides this non-peroxidase antiseptic activity. Ultimately, a team from Germany stumbled across the answer — a substance called methylglyoxal. Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, Molan established the world's first Honey Research Unit and unearthed many other honey secrets.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Molan has compiled compelling evidence that honey is a lot more than Winnie the Pooh's cure for a rumbly tumbly. "The only reason for being a bee," Pooh once said, "is to make honey, and the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it." Molan would disagree. Based on the work of his laboratory and others, Molan ascribes the following therapeutic attributes to honey:
• Honey stimulates white blood cells' immune response.
• Honey has pre-emptive antioxidant activity — meaning it can stop potentially cell-damaging free radicals from forming.
• Honey removes pus and dead tissue from wounds.
• Manuka honey has these benefits as well unique antibacterial activity that is more persistent in its interaction with wound bacteria…