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Winnie the Pooh had no problems when he wanted a jar of honey. The jar very clearly said “HUNNY” (spelling wasn’t his strong suit), and that is exactly what was in it. These days many jars on supermarket shelves might say “honey” on the label, but what’s inside is in fact honey blended with another sweetener such as corn syrup or rice syrup. The honey has been adulterated and the product labelled in a false and misleading way.

It’s perfectly legal for producers and food companies to market honey blended with other sweeteners, but if they do (usually to cut costs), they are required to label it as a blend – e.g., “blend of honey and corn syrup” or “blend of corn syrup and honey” depending on which ingredient is predominant. If they don’t, they can be prosecuted and fined by the appropriate food regulatory authorities. But of course, the regulatory authorities have to find the adulterated products first. Here in Australia they are on the case. Recent research by Mark Taylor and Xiaoteng Zhou at Macquarie University suggests that many commercial honey brands have been adulterated to increase honey volume and boost profits.

“Honey adulteration is nothing new,” they report in their “Honeygate” story in The Conversation. “It has been on the rise since the 1970s when cheap high-fructose corn syrup became widely available … Some operators adulterate honey with rice sugars that enable them to circumvent the C4 test. Some rice syrup producers openly advertise the fact that their products will not cause adulterated honeys to fail the C4 test. Honey can be adulterated either during or after production. Inadvertent adulteration might happen through overfeeding of sucrose to bees during periods when food sources are limited, or at harvest time. This practice, if done occasionally, can protect colonies at times of low food availability. But if used injudiciously it can also filter through into the finished product.”

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Manuka honey isn’t a panacea or a superfood. But it is grossly underutilised as a topical treatment for wounds, ulcers and burns, particularly in the face of the looming global superbug crisis write Nural Cokcetin (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Technology Sydney) and Shona Blair General Manager, ithree institute, University of Technology Sydney in The Conversation. Here’s their report. 

Manuka Honey
Manuka honey is often touted as a “superfood” that treats many ailments, including allergies, colds and flus, gingivitis, sore throats, staph infections, and numerous types of wounds. Manuka can apparently also boost energy, “detox” your system, lower cholesterol, stave off diabetes, improve sleep, increase skin tone, reduce hair loss and even prevent frizz and split ends. Some of these claims are nonsense, but some have good evidence behind them.

Honey has been used therapeutically throughout history, with records of its cultural, religious and medicinal importance shown in rock paintings, carvings and sacred texts from many diverse ancient cultures. Honey was used to treat a wide range of ailments from eye and throat infections to gastroenteritis and respiratory ailments, but it was persistently popular as a treatment for numerous types of wounds and skin infections.

Medicinal honey largely fell from favour with the advent of modern antibiotics in the mid-20th century. Western medicine largely dismissed it as a “worthless but harmless substance”. But the emergence of superbugs (pathogens resistant to some, many or even all of our antibiotics) means alternative approaches to dealing with pathogens are being scientifically investigated. We now understand the traditional popularity of honey as a wound dressing is almost certainly due to its antimicrobial properties. High sugar content and low pH mean honey inhibits microbial growth, but certain honeys still retain their antimicrobial activity when these are diluted to negligible levels.

Many different types of honey also produce microbe-killing levels of hydrogen peroxide when glucose oxidase (an enzyme incorporated into honey by bees) reacts with glucose and oxygen molecules in water. So, when honey is used as a wound dressing it draws moisture from the tissues, and this reacts to produce hydrogen peroxide, clearing the wound of infection. The antimicrobial activity of different honeys varies greatly, depending on which flowers the bees visit to collect the nectar they turn into honey. While all honeys possess some level of antimicrobial activity, certain ones are up to 100 times more active than others.

How is manuka different to other honey? Manuka honey is derived from the nectar of manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) trees, and it has an additional component to its potent antimicrobial activity. This unusual activity was discovered by Professor Peter Molan, in New Zealand in the 1980s, when he realised the action of manuka honey remained even after hydrogen peroxide was removed. The cause of this activity remained elusive for many years, until two laboratories independently identified methylglyoxal (MGO) as a key active component in manuka honey in 2008. MGO is a substance that occurs naturally in many foods, plants and animal cells and it has antimicrobial activity. The activity of manuka honey has been tested against a diverse range of microbes, particularly those that cause wound infections, and it inhibits problematic bacterial pathogens, including superbugs that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. Manuka honey can also disperse and kill bacteria living in biofilms (communities of microbes notoriously resistant to antibiotics), including ones of Streptococcus (the cause of strep throat) and Staphylococcus (the cause of Golden staph infections). Crucially, there are no reported cases of bacteria developing resistance to honey, nor can manuka or other honey resistance be generated in the laboratory. It’s important to note that the amount of MGO in different manuka honeys varies, and not all manuka honeys necessarily have high levels of antimicrobial activity.

Manuka honey and wound healing Honey has ideal wound dressing properties, and there have been numerous studies looking at the efficacy of manuka as a wound dressing. Apart from its broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, honey is also non-toxic to mammalian cells, helps to maintain a moist wound environment (which is beneficial for healing), has anti-inflammatory activity, reduces healing time and scarring, has a natural debriding action (which draws dead tissues, foreign bodies and dead immune cells from the wound) and also reduces wound odour. These properties account for many of the reports showing the effectiveness of honey as a wound dressing. Honey, and in particular manuka honey, has successfully been used to treat infected and non-infected wounds, burns, surgical incisions, leg ulcers, pressure sores, traumatic injuries, meningococcal lesions, side effects from radiotherapy and gingivitis.

What about eating manuka honey? Most of the manuka honey sold globally is eaten. Manuka may inhibit the bacteria that cause a sore (“strep”) throat or gingivitis, but the main components responsible for the antimicrobial activity won’t survive the digestion process. Nonetheless, honey consumption can have other therapeutic benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and prebiotic (promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal microorganisms) properties. Although, these properties are not solely linked to manuka honey and various other honeys may also work.

What doesn’t it do? There is a commonly touted belief that eating manuka (or local) honey will help with hay fever because it contains small doses of the pollens that are causing the symptoms, and eating this in small quantities will help your immune system learn not to overreact. But there’s no scientific evidence eating honey helps hay fever sufferers. Most of the pollen that causes hay fever comes from plants that are wind pollinated (so they don’t produce nectar and are not visited by bees). There is some preliminary work showing honey might protect from some side effects of radiation treatment to the head and neck that warrants further investigation. But other claims honey has anti-cancer activity are yet to be substantiated.

There isn’t any robust scientific evidence that manuka lowers cholesterol, treats diabetes or improves sleep. Although one interesting study did show honey was more effective than cough medicine for reducing night time coughs of children, improving their sleep (and their parents’). Manuka honey wasn’t used specifically, but it may well be as helpful.

Claims that anything helps to “detox” are innately ridiculous. Similarly “superfood” is more about marketing than much else, and the cosmetic and anti-ageing claims about manuka are scientifically unfounded.

Final verdict If consumers are buying manuka honey for general daily use as a food or tonic, there is no need to buy the more active and therefore more expensive types. But the right kind of honey is very effective as a wound dressing. So if manuka is to be used to treat wounds or skin infections, it should be active, sterile and appropriately packaged as a medicinal product. The best way to ensure this is to check the product has a CE mark or it’s registered with the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (marked with an AUST L/AUST R number).

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Alyssa Crittenden is an anthropologist who studies the evolution of human behavior as it relates to nutrition and reproduction. She has worked with the Hadza who live in northern Tanzania near Lake Eyasi – one of the world’s last remaining hunting and gathering populations — since 2004. In this issue of GI News, we reprint a piece she contributed to GI News in January 2013 on the evolution of the human diet.
Alyssa Crittenden
The ethnographic cross-cultural evidence of honey consumption, combined with depictions of honey hunting portrayed in rock art around the world, suggest that honey has long been a part of human history. Early humans, and their expanding brains, would have greatly benefited from consuming honey and bee larvae because the human brain needs glucose to fuel the high metabolic demands of neural development and function. The Paleolithic diet likely included meat, plant foods, and honeycomb – one of the sweet secrets to human evolution.

Honey and bee larvae are important foods consumed by many populations of hunters and gatherers worldwide. Foragers in Latin America, Asia, Australia, and Africa include honey and bee larvae as major components of their diet. The Hadza hunter-gatherers, an ethnic group that has traditionally subsisted from hunting and gathering, even list honey as their number one preferred food item!

The Hadza consume honey and larvae of both stingless bees and stinging bees, including the African killer bee. The Hadza locate the hives with the assistance of a wild African bird, the aptly named honey guide (Indicator indicator). The honey guide bird and the Hadza honey hunter communicate back and forth through a series of whistles and the bird guides the honey hunter, tree by tree, to the bee hive. Once the honey hunter has located the hive, he pounds wooden pegs into the trunk of the tree, climbs to the top where the hive is located, chops into the tree to expose the hive, and smokes it out by placing burning brush into the opening. Smoking the hive acts to pacify the bees by dulling the senses of the guard bees who protect the opening of the hive. The bees see the smoke as a habitat threat and focus on collecting enough honey to rebuild their hive elsewhere. This allows the hunter to collect the honeycomb without being stung by the killer bees. The honey guide bird patiently waits outside of the hive and as the honey hunter obtains his honeycomb prize, the honey guide bird is rewarded with its delicious prize – wax from the comb and bees.

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Writing in Evolution and Human Behaviour, Yale anthropologist Brian Wood and his co-researchers describe the evolution of the mutually beneficial relationship between the honeyguide bird and the hunter-gatherer in Africa investigate the origin of this special relationship. “We propose that in a first, commensal phase, honeyguides preyed upon the bee nests and discarded honeycomb that hominins made available through their honey hunting,” he writes. “In a second, mutualistic phase, honeyguides evolved the habit of actively leading hominins to bee nests. Finally, in a third phase of manipulative mutualism, hominins began to actively change the payoffs received by honeyguides – either by actively ‘rewarding’ them or by reducing their immediate payoff. The Hadza we observed did not actively reward honeyguides, but such may occur in other contexts … Based on within-species mtDNA variation scientists conservatively estimate that I. indicator is at least 3 million years old. We think it is reasonable to assume that an initial commensal association between hominins (Ardipithecus ramidus or an Australopithicine) and honeyguides arose in the Pliocene.”

Honeyguide bird
[ The Pliocene Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extends from 5.333 million to 2.58 million years BP. It is the second and youngest epoch of the Neogene Period in the Cenozoic Era. The Pliocene follows the Miocene Epoch and is followed by the Pleistocene Epoch. Wikipedia ]

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