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Methylglyoxal and the Health Benefits of Honey

by Eliza Ward

Many have heard about the health benefits of honey. After the honey bees gather their nectar they add an enzyme called glucose oxidase to it as a way to preserve the honey. When that enzyme comes in contact with body fluids, it slowly releases hydrogen peroxide.

All raw honey contains a certain amount of glucose oxidase. But, the honey made from the nectar of the Tea Tree (or Manuka Tree) blossom also contains another element -- an element with phytochemical-derived anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties beyond compare.

What is UMF?

It is very common to see a sticker on Manuka honey indicating the UMF level. Over 20 years ago, Dr. Peter Molan of Waikato University in New Zealand discovered that in some strains of Manuka (Tea Tree) Honey there was a special ingredient with exceptional antibacterial and antifungal properties. At the time, although he could measure the amount of anti-bacterial/anti-fungal activity in the honey, he did not know what the specific compound was.

So, he named it Unique Manuka Factor, or (UMF), and he developed a scale from 0 to about 20 to help quantify how much UMF is present in a specific batch of Manuka honey. Any Manuka honey above a UMF of 16 is considered to have high levels of antibacterial and antiviral activity.

What is that Antibacterial Compound?

In 2008, Professor Thomas Henle of University of Dresden, Germany discovered that it was Methylglyoxal that gives Manuka honey its unique antibacterial properties. Prior to this discovery, the only other food items that where known to contain significant amounts of dietary Methylglyoxal were coffee and cocoa. But the content concentrations in those foods were small compared to some the content level in some Manuka honeys.

Additionally, since dietary Methylglyoxal is resistant to heat, body fluids, light, and enzymatic activity, its potential benefits are very stable and therefore potentially superior to the Hydrogen Peroxide producing glucose oxidase enzyme found in all honeys.

As it turns out, not all honey produced from the Tea Tree blossoms contains high concentrations of Methylglyoxal. Methylglyoxal content can range from 0 mg/kg to 1000mg/kg. Anything higher than 100 mg/kg is considered antibacterial, although the higher the concentration, the more antibacterial activity. Anything above 250 mg/kg is considered to contain significant antibacterial activity.

However, Methylglyoxal content levels vary from place to place and year to year. So, each batch of honey needs to be tested to determine its level of Methylglyoxal content.

Health Benefits of Tea Tree (Manuka) Honey

The potential health benefits of Tea Tree (Manuka) honey comes from the fact that, in a lab environment, no bacteria or virus has been shown to be resistant to high levels of Methylglyoxal contained within it - even many of the super-bugs that have become antibiotic resistant. Just as critical, Methylgyoxal is a very stable ingredient and able to remain active even in environments with high heat, humidity and light - as well as in the presents of body fluids. Also, it is not dependent on the presents of oxygen to deliver those potential benefits.

Here is a short list of some of the bacteria and viruses that Methylglyoxal has been shown to kill when tested in a lab environment:

Helicobacter pylori - the bacterium known to cause many stomach ulcers and duodenal ulcers
Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA - also known as the super-bug for its high level of resistance to most available antibiotics
Escherichia coli (E. Coli) - known to cause serious food poisoning
Streptococcus pyogenes - a virus that causes sore throats

Is Dietary Methylglyoxal safe? (The small print)

Although it is clear that the dietary Methyglyoxal present in many Manuka honeys has strong anti-bacterial properties, it's efficacy and safety when ingested is often hotly debated. Although there is no definitive research showing the benefits or risks of ingesting large amount of dietary Methylglyoxal, scientist generally agree that more research should been done to specifically understand how Methylglyoxal works and effects the body - both positively and negatively - as a naturally-occurring compound in food.

Clearly, medical conditions such as diabetes must be careful because of the high sugar content on all honeys.

So, like anything that has "health benefits" attached, do your research before you buy, proceed at your own risk, and don't believe everything you read.

Next article: The History of Honey

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