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Is Scottish Heather Honey Really Better at Killing Bacteria Than Manuka?

Scottish Heather Honey vs Manuka Honey

Many health claims have been made about both Scottish heather honey and New Zealand manuka honey. Keep reading to learn what recent studies are saying about the anti-bacterial and healing properties of these two superfoods.

The Hype Over the Health Benefits of Scottish Heather Honey

Scottish heather honey is made by bees that collect nectar from heather that blooms in August on the Highlands of Scotland. Like all honeys, heather honey has anti-bacterial properties which makes it a good natural remedy for wounds and cuts. However, a couple of British newspapers recently published articles boldly claiming that Scottish heather honey is in fact the best honey for killing bacteria, even better than the highly-praised – and highly-priced – manuka honey. These claims are based on a study published in The Veterinary Journal in 2013 which tested eleven kinds of honey for their ability to kill microbes.

In this study, the antimicrobial activities of the honey samples were assessed against 10 bacteria recovered from wounds of horses. These bacteria included methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, two pathogenic microbes that have been linked to several difficult-to-treat infections in humans.

Eight of the ten tested products were effective against all 10 bacteria at concentrations varying from <2% to 16% (v/v). Scottish heather honey, which showed the strongest anti-bacterial action among the tested products, inhibited the growth of all pathogenic bacteria even at low concentrations. In this study, Scottish heather honey performed even better than manuka honey.

But there's a catch: heather honey's activity comes almost exclusively from hydrogen peroxide, a naturally-occurring chemical that is produced by certain enzymes present in honey. Unfortunately, these enzymes are easily destroyed by heat, light, and body fluids. Manuka honey, by contrast, gets most of its anti-bacterial power from a compound called methylglyoxal, or MGO. This microbe-killing compound is highly resistant to heat and light and thus considered extremely stable.

High-UMF Manuka Honey Still Better Than Heather Honey

Furthermore, a study from 2012 suggests that manuka honeys that contain exceptionally high levels of MGO may in fact have stronger anti-bacterial properties than Scottish heather honey. This study found that all tested high-MGO manuka honeys had stronger total anti-bacterial activity than Scottish heather honey. Also Greek pine honey was found to have more microbe-killing power than heather honey. However, heather honey did beat all other honeys included in this study, including Australian eucalyptus honey, Yorkshire honey, New Zealand beech honey, Spanish orange blossom honey, and a handful of other common and some less common honeys.

The Bottom Line

Both New Zealand manuka and Scottish heather honey have very strong anti-bacterial properties, and both have earned their reputations as healing superfoods. However, there's no clear answer to the question 'which one is better in terms of antibacterial and healing power' as things like processing methods and storage conditions can cause significant variations in the anti-bacterial properties of these two kinds of honey.

Furthermore, due to the significant differences in the MGO content, some manuka honeys are much more effective at killing microbes than others. Manuka honeys with high levels of MGO are usually labelled as "UMF Manuka Honey" or "Active Manuka Honey".

1. R. Carnwath, E.M. Graham, K. Reynolds, and P.J. Pollock (2013). The antimicrobial activity of honey against common equine wound bacterial isolates. The Veterinary Journal.
2. Sulaiman Alnaimat, Milton Wainwright, and Khalid Al'Abri (2012). Antibacterial potential of honey from different origins: a comparison with manuka honey. Journal of Microbiology, Biotechnology and Food Sciences, 1 (5) 1328-1338.

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