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The Science of Manuka Honey

Years ago, people were quick to spot manuka honey’s benefits. But, without today’s technology, they were unable to investigate its properties.

 Professor Peter Molan and the  Unique Manuka Factor (UMF)

Initially, scientists believed Manuka honey’s antibacterial properties could be explained by hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide had long been used as an antiseptic. So scientists hypothesized that the hydrogen peroxide in some Manuka honey explained Manuka honey’s characteristics.


Others were unconvinced. Eventually, in 1990, Professor Peter Molan demonstrated that Manuka honey had antibacterial properties even when devoid of hydrogen peroxide. He also showed that some Manuka honeys had a higher ‘non-peroxide activity’ than others.


In an effort to differentiate ‘strong’ Manuka honeys from weaker variants, Professor Molan came up with the UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor. He used the concentration of Phenol solution to benchmark the potency of Manuka honey. The higher the UMF, the greater the non-peroxide activity of a Manuka honey.


While Professor Molan’s research broke new ground, it never unearthed the true cause of the non-peroxide activity. Professor Molan introduced the UMF rating system. But what caused anti-bacterial activity in Manuka honey remained unknown for almost 25 years.

 Professor Thomas Henle and ‘MGO’ 


Over in Germany, scientists continued to poke, prod and ponder Manuka honey both in laboratories and out. And eventually, in 2006, Professor Thomas Henle discovered that extraordinarily high concentrations of naturally occurring methylglyoxal was what made Manuka honey unique. 

Everyday honey might have methylglyoxal levels of 2mg/kg. But Manuka honey, Henle realised, contained substantially more. High UMF Manuka honey often contained 500 times as much methylglyoxal as standard honey.

The Unique Manuka Factor was no longer a mystery. Manuka honey’s unique properties were caused by it’s underlying methylglyoxal levels. Methylglyoxal, or MGO explained the UMF. Manuka honey, long a mystery, was finally understood.

 The MGO levels of manuka honey 

Not all Manuka honeys are equal. Now we know that methylglyoxal is the underlying driver of Manuka honey’s unique properties, the MGO concentrations of genuine and certified Manuka honeys can be measured. 


At Helena Health, we print the MGO concentrations of Manuka honey on our jars. The MGO levels correspond to the MGO concentration of the honey inside. An MGO of 500, for example, means a Manuka honey contains at least 500mg of MGO per kilo. 


As a rule of thumb, the higher the MGO, the better.

Research today

It’s only through research that we’ve been able to understand and explain Manuka honey’s properties. Today, research has progressed past Manuka honey’s properties into its potential health and wellbeing benefits. Some of the research is listed below.

Research today

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Buy from our range of Manuka honey and bee products, delivered directly from New Zealand to your door.

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