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Antibacterial components of honey

Honey has a number of aspects that makes it unattractive for bacterial growth.

  • Honey is a super saturated sugar solution, and like jam and other preserves bacteria have a hard time growing in it. However, Staphyloccus aureus, "the most common wound-infecting species", is tolerant of high-sugar environments.
  • Honey is highly acidic. However, Molan20 says that once diluted with bodily fluids like saliva or blood from a wound, it becomes more neutral and ineffective.
  • Honey contains hydrogen peroxide, and several researchers have shown a direct relationship between antibacterial activity and levels of hydrogen peroxide.20

Nevertheless, "honey originating from New Zealand manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) often exhibits antibacterial activity (UMF) that is unrelated to the content of hydrogen peroxide, which is responsible for the antibacterial activity of other honey. To make it simple, this antibacterial property in manuka honey is referred to as non-peroxide activity, which is unique to manuka honey and is due to the presence of methylglyoxal."21

What makes non-peroxidal activity special is that it is not affected by the catalase enzyme present in serum, saliva, blood and tissues of the body. Hydrogen peroxide's antibacterial activity present in other honeys will be broken down by catalase, therefore reducing the antibacterial potency of honey.22

Molan (2012) also distinguishes a very important advantage of manuka honey over that of other honey. He says: "The enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide is destroyed when honey is exposed to heat and light, or stored in warm conditions. But the non-peroxide antibacterial activity of manuka honey is stable, so there is no concern about genuine Active Manuka Honeylosing its activity in storage."

According to Wallace et al.23, since the UMF varies between batches of manuka honey, it is individually tested "after processing and rated against a scale relating to antimicrobial efficacy (from 0 (low efficacy) to 20 (high efficacy), with the higher rating indicating higher antibacterial potency"23. According to Wallace et al., a UMF® rating of 10 has equivalent antimicrobial potency to a 10% phenol solution.

In 2008, Mavric et al.24 demonstrated the correlation between the UMF of manuka honeys and levels of a methylglyoxal (MGO).

The major usage of honey for treatment of infection has been in wound care, but there is increasing interest in its use to treat infections in the nose. Honey has been registered with the regulatory authorities in Australia for use in treatment of the eyes, and a small clinical trial has established its effectiveness in treating gingivitis. There is a large amount of evidence from clinical trials that demonstrates the effectiveness on clearing infection from wounds25.

Al Somai et al.26 have shown that MGO from consumed honey is available in the stomach, where it can kill bacteria such as Heliobacter pylori. MGO is stable in stomach acid; however, when it moves through into the small intestine it breaks down in the more neutral conditions. Therefore, MGO is not absorbed into the bloodstream from the intestine so its effects are always topical and local.


20, 22. Molan P. (2012) What's special about active manuka honey?

21. Adams CJ, Manley-Harris M and Molan PC. (2009) The origin of methylglyoxal in New Zealand manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honey. Carbohydrate Research 344, 1050-1053.

23. Wallace A et al. (2009) Demonstrating the safety of manuka honey UMF 20+ in a human clinical trial with healthy individuals. British Journal of Nutrition, 1-6.

24. Mavric ESW, Barth G and Henle T. (2008) Identification and quantification of methylglyoxal as the dominant antibacterial constituent of manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honeys from New Zealand. Mol Nutrition Food Research 52, 483-489.

25. Trials published (2006-2011). Link:

26. Al Somai N, Coley KA, Molan PC and Hancock BM. (1994) Susceptibility of Heliobacter pylori to the antibacterial activity of manuka honey. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 87 (1) 9-12.