Honey has been used medicinally for millennia, and we should stick with the sticky-sweet stuff: Its health benefits are being borne out by research. But it’s not as simple as grabbing that bear-shaped bottle off the grocery store shelf. Certain types of honey pack more of a healthy punch than others … and honey’s not the only bee product worthy of some buzz.
For an exceptionally healing honey, look to Mānuka honey. It’s made by bees that collect nectar from the flowers of the Mānuka bush in New Zealand.
“The Indigenous people of New Zealand have traditionally used various parts of the Mānuka bush for health and wellness purposes for over 800 years,” says Les Stowell, general manager of Onuku Honey, which produces Mānuka honey.
Most honeys contain naturally occurring hydrogen peroxide—aka the stuff you splash on your kids’ scraped knees to prevent infection. Mānuka honey is different. It contains very little hydrogen peroxide. Instead, it boasts a potent natural substance called MGO (methylglyoxal) that gives it impressive bacteria-killing abilities (what scientists call “non-peroxide activity”).
“Although all honeys contain antimicrobial properties, Mānuka honey is the only honey that contains non-peroxide activity, which has greater antibacterial power,” explains Stowell.
Mānuka honey is most commonly associated with healing sore throats as its naturally thick texture coats and soothes the throat while destroying harmful microbes. It also has a long history of topical use for wound healing. Today, you can purchase medical-grade Mānuka honey that has been sterilized and processed into a dressing. It can treat skin ailments such as burns and scrapes.
How can you be sure you’re getting a good dose of Mānuka honey’s healing powers when you buy a jar? The New Zealand government requires all Mānuka honey exported from the country to be tested to ensure its authenticity. Plus, there are several different grading systems for Mānuka honey, including the MGO (which of course stands for methylglyoxal) and KFactor grading systems.
UMF (Unique Mānuka Factor) is the most widely recognized Mānuka honey grading system. It was developed and trademarked by the UMF Honey Association in New Zealand and grades Mānuka honey based largely on three markers: DHA (dihydroxyacetone—the special component in Mānuka nectar that turns into MGO while honey is ripening), leptosperin (a stable compound found in Mānuka honey), and MGO. UMF ratings range from UMF 5+ to UMF 20+. The higher the number, the higher the quality.
Mānuka honey can even be used on your skin for a clear, smooth complexion! Try it for yourself with a homemade face mask. Simply apply Mānuka honey to your skin (be sure to avoid your eyes), let it set for 20 to 30 minutes, and then gently rinse with warm water. Pat your face dry and apply your favorite moisturizer.
Other types of honey beyond Mānuka still have health perks—and honey made in or near your community can be especially golden.
Local honey is often raw and unprocessed, and the purer the honey, the stronger its benefits, including its antimicrobial power. Plus, buying local honey means you’re supporting nearby beekeepers, whose bees pollinate local plants and crops—maybe even your own garden!
One of the best places to shop for local honey is at your local natural health retailer or farmers’ market, or directly through a local beekeeper. While you’re there, you may want to stock up on two other bee products: royal jelly and bee pollen. Royal jelly is the nutrition-dense food bees give to larvae destined to be queen bees. Bee pollen is also fed to baby bees; it’s packed with protein.
If you’re allergic to bee stings or pollen, however, steer clear of raw honey and possibly other bee products, as they may provoke a reaction. And no matter where your honey is sourced from, never feed honey to children under one year old. Both pasteurized and unpasteurized honey may contain spores that can be toxic to little ones.
Whether you choose to enjoy Mānuka honey or local honey, the sweet stuff is best used in moderation. Just one spoonful a day is plenty! Honey is delicious on its own and in smoothies and sauces or as a sugar substitute in baked goods. Drizzle a little on a slice of cheese, use it as a yogurt topping, or mix it in iced tea or lemonade for a touch of natural sweetness.
Propolis is a bee product, like honey. But while honey is the bees’ food, propolis is more like their medicine. Carly Stein, founder and CEO of Beekeeper’s Naturals, says, “Bees make propolis by collecting and processing a diverse array of beneficial plant and tree resins. The sticky substance that results is used to line the entire hive. This mainly protects the bees and the hive from bacteria, foreign invaders, and viruses.”
Bees aren’t the only ones who can benefit from propolis. Propolis has a rich history of natural healing for humans that’s being rediscovered now.
“Modern research on propolis continually affirms its beneficial effects on the immune system,” says Stein, adding that propolis “demonstrates powerful antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Bee propolis can be purchased in a variety of forms, including oral and topical options. One of the most popular forms of bee propolis is a throat spray.
Stein has a few tips for selecting a bee propolis. “The most important thing to be aware of when buying any bee product is the company’s sourcing practices. Bee populations are struggling due to habitat loss, rampant pesticide use, and climate change, yet our global food system would crumble without them. You want to make sure you’re supporting the bees rather than contributing to the problem, which is why any bee product you buy should absolutely be sustainably sourced. If a company is not upfront about its sourcing practices, opt for a company that is. Demanding sustainability is one of the best ways to support the bee cause.”
Time to get (honey)combing the aisles for natural bee products. Whichever one you choose, you’ll be getting a host of sweet benefits.
Some propolis extracts are in a base of alcohol, while others are in a base of water and vegetable glycerin, so if you’re alcohol sensitive, be aware of that factor when purchasing.