Honey for wound healing
New Zealand’s manuka honey is an effective treatment for chronic wound infections.
Image: Studio 37/Shutterstock

New research by scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) into how honey affects the growth of bacteria has provided support for the effectiveness of manuka honey in treating chronic wound infections. 

The research, which was  conducted at the ithree institute at UTS, in collaboration with New Zealand natural health and beauty products company Comvita, was published today in the open-access science journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researcher, Professor Liz Harry, said that the study examined manuka, kanuka and clover honeys to determine which was the most effective at inhibiting the growth of four types of bacteria commonly found in chronic wounds. 

The research team looked at two key honey ingredients known to inhibit bacterial growth: methylglyoxal (MGO) which is naturally present at high concentrations in Manuka honeys; and hydrogen peroxide which is present in many honeys at varying concentrations, including manuka.

“Honey has long been known to have anti-bacterial activity. We wanted to compare the effectiveness of different honeys on various bacteria to determine how the different MGO and hydrogen peroxide levels in these honeys relate to bacterial growth inhibition,” Professor Harry said.

“What we saw was that the manuka honeys were the most effective at inhibiting growth of all the bacteria.  Interestingly, the MGO level alone cannot explain the variation in the effects we saw; the key to the effectiveness of honey is its chemical complexity – it contains several chemicals that inhibit bacterial growth, not just MGO.”

“Unlike antibiotics, it is not expected that bacteria will become resistant to honey, a claim that has been supported by our research” she said, continuing ”Honey is an excellent example of where years of evolution can provide an effective, long-term medical solution compared to the alternative of pure-compound antibiotics to which bacteria will always eventually develop resistance.” 

The research has implications for the way that manuka honey is marketed, and the way consumers understand the products that are available to them. Real Manuka honey comes from the Leptospermum scoparium plant that is native to New Zealand. However, many companies attempt to artificially increase MGO levels in inferior honey products and label them as genuine Manuka, but Professor Harry warns synthetically altered honeys are no match for the real thing.

“Not all honey is the same and not all honey labelled ‘manuka’ is the real thing,” Professor Harry said. 

”We believe that it’s really important for clinicians and patients to use natural honey products that have been minimally processing for the best results in treating chronic wounds.”

As well as providing valuable information to clinicians and health care consumers, the research will also help Comvita and other companies with an interest in the medicinal use of honey to market their products more effectively.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.