Bee well

From natural sweetener to cure for the common cold, New Zealand’s medicinal Manuka honey is quite the multitasker.

With cold and flu season upon us (sniffle), discover some sweet relief with a healthy, all-natural secret weapon: Manuka honey.

Collected exclusively from the flower of the wild tea tree bush found in New Zealand, Manuka — and its medicinal properties — was previously a natural food store staple. But thanks to a snowball effect kicked off last January at San Francisco’s Fancy Food Show, where Manuka created a buzz, the active honey is finally popping up in gourmand’s pantries and on upscale restaurant menus.

"Manuka honey has morphed into a culinary as well as natural-health icon," says Bill Floyd, international marketer for several of New Zealand’s gourmet exports. "It’s reached critical mass in New Zealand and is spilling over into our export markets."

The secret’s worth sharing, says nutritionist Lauren Antonucci, registered dietitian and certified sports nutritionist. "Raw Manuka honey has an extremely high nutritional value," she says. "It’s high in energizing carbohydrates, as well as a wide array of antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and minerals."

Antonucci, who recommends taking the soothing substance to help improve or eliminate hay fever and seasonal allergy symptoms, notes that Manuka is an alkaline-forming food, which can also help counteract acid and indigestion.

Studies on the healing honey began in 1981 when Peter Molan, an associate professor at Waikato University, heard that Manuka had a reputation in folk medicine as an effective ointment for cuts and scrapes, and began a research unit in his lab to establish its natural antibacterial properties.

"I thought that maybe there was something extra in Manuka honey which came from the tree," says Molan via email, "so I tested the honey by adding an enzyme that destroys hydrogen peroxide."

Molan guessed right: It’s the nectar of the Manuka tree that gives the honey its staying power against the cold, flu and even cuts and scrapes. He found that, while all honey contains antibacterial properties, only Manuka retains them completely when exposed to the site of infection. Molan warns against fakes on the market; authentic brands should describe Manuka’s antibacterial properties on the label as "non-peroxide activity."

Despite its rarity and single-source characteristic, Manuka is becoming increasingly available in the United States at various health food stores, including Whole Foods, and online from New Zealand-based companies like Comvita and Airborne. It's an ideal ingredient for marinades, salad dressings, savory dishes, glazes for seafood and meat, as well as a natural sweetener. Add it to tea, milk, coffee, or even ice cream, spread it on toast, add a spoonful to hot water with a lemon wedge or make a delicious winter cocktail. (Hot toddy, anyone?).