The manuka plant was known for its healing properties in early New Zealand, with Māori using most elements of the plant for medicinal purposes. James Cook even made his own home-brewed manuka and rimu beer to help his crew ward off scurvy.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when Dr Peter Molan of Waikato University began researching the antibacterial and healing properties of manuka honey, that the seed was sewn for huge commercial success.
Dr Molan found a wide range of uses for the honey and has now been recognised for revolutionising the local honey industry. Manuka honey is now one of the most researched honeys in the world.
Manuka Health New Zealand, for example, has opened a new $10 million honey processing facility and laboratory to develop products like its CycloPower health supplements, which include chewable and vegan honey capsules. A recent study has shown manuka honey could fight superbugs as antibiotics become less effective.
It is estimated that 10,000 tonnes of manuka labeled honey are sold worldwide every year. High volume markets can fetch up to US$28 a kilogram, but some medical grade manuka can fetch up to $1000 per kilogram.
This high price has enticed thieves to shoplift thousands of dollars worth of manuka honey. At least two local supermarkets now keep the pots of liquid gold under lock and key, only handing it over on request, and international retailers are investing in security staff, electronic tags and decoy jars to safely sell stock.
The honey also needs to outsmart counterfeiters. Dr Molan created the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating for honey as well as the Molan Gold Standard to help consumers find certified manuka honey.
However, the government seems to be struggling to keep up with the amount of manuka honey on the market and its different standards. British media have reported consumers are being misled over substituted manuka honey and inflated prices, dubbing this ‘The great manuka honey swindle’.
Some Australian players are also trying to claim manuka as their own, leading some in the industry to call for the same kind of protection for New Zealand manuka honey as Champagne, from the Champagne region in France, and scotch whiskey, from Scotland.
Manuka honey’s star is on the rise. Reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian is the latest high-profile ambassador for Manuka Doctor’s cosmetic honey line, which includes facial masks, lip balms and a firming serum.
Manuka honey will stick around. A government and industry growth partnership aims to increase the annual value of New Zealand's manuka honey industry to $1.2 billion by 2028.
This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 747 December 2016 / January 2017