New Zealand, the Kardashians, and the Battle to Control Manuka Honey

Kourtney Kardashian hawks its health benefits. Counterfeiters and chemists labor to unlock its molecular secrets. And now its at the center of an international branding war.

Its honey, but not just any honey. Its Manka honey, a sweet extravagance from New Zealand that sells for a sticky $2.50 an ouncesix times the cost of conventional honeyand has attracted a slew of famous fans. Kardashian, who has a promotional contract, claims Manka is responsible for her robust health and soft skin. On our show when were filming, our crew would eat Manka by the spoonful, the reality show star recently told Amazons style channel.

More than 7,000 miles away from Hollywood, biologist Simon Williams is trying to help Australia cash in on the Manka craze. He treks through the Australian bush searching for trees in the same genus as Manka, dodging wildlife at every turn. One wombat kept trying to give me love bites on my feet, he says.

Ready for #Worldkissingday2016 thanks to my @ManukaDr lip enhancer #BeeingKourtney #ManukaAmbassador

A photo posted by Kourtney Kardashian (@kourtneykardash) on

But not everyone thinks that the trees Williams is surveying are legitimate sources of Manka honeycreated by bees who gather their nectar. Real Manka, they say, can only come from New Zealand, which is why that countrys Manka Honey Appellation Society recently submitted a certification trademark application for the words Manka Honey. If the application succeeds, New Zealanders will have exclusive use of the international brand, in the same way that only sparkling wine from a certain region of Northern France can legally be called champagne.

Manka honey has more than just the lure of exclusivity. While theres no evidence it protects Kardashian from the common cold, Manka does have useful antibacterial properties. Most honeys kill some bacteria because they contain peroxide, which eats away at the bugs protective cell walls. Manka honey, by contrast, can attack a bacterium in many ways: disrupting communication, inhibiting movement, and destroying digestive enzymes, as well as breaking down its cell walls. This intricate attack strategy could make Manka honey more effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA.

Beyond its antibacterial benefits, Manka honey (and other honey) has some wound-healing properties. When health-care workers put strips of honey over burns, for example, researchers found they healed four to five days faster. They draw the infection out of the wound, they kill the infection, and they heal the wound underneath so the tissue regenerates, says Peter Brooks, a biochemist who advises Williams at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. He currently studies Mankas anti-inflammatory properties.

With these health benefits and celebrity endorsements, demand for Manka is growing fastthe countrys honey exports leapt to $285 million in 2015 from $202 million in 2014. To no ones surprise, New Zealand is fighting to keep the coveted brand for itself. John Rawcliffe, a representative of New Zealands Unique Manka Factor Honey Association, refers to Australian Manka as Tea Tree or Jellybush honey.

Raw Manuka honeycombGetty Images

But the Aussies arent convinced theres any meaningful chemical difference between Aussie and Kiwi Manka. The active ingredients in the honeys are the same, says Brooks.

Brooks is confident because so much work has already been done to identify the key chemical components of Manka honeymostly because Manka honey producers have to protect against counterfeiters. Dishonest honey makers have been known to mix Manka with other honeys, or mislabel the honey altogether. They also sometimes heat their honey to try to fool the authenticity tests, feed Mankas unique chemical markers directly to the bees, or even shake the pollen from a live Manka tree directly into their honey, according to Adrian Charlton, head of chemical profiling at the United Kingdoms Food and Environment Research Agency, a joint governmental and commercial laboratory that ensures food quality and safety in the UK.

To try to foil the fakers, Kiwi researchers initially tested for a certain amount of a compound associated with the honeys antibacterial properties: methylglyoxal. Its derived from the carbohydrate dihydroxyacetone, which comes from the nectar of the Manka flower. However, fraudsters can heat the honey or store it for a long time to artificially turn the available dihydroxyacetone into methylglyoxal. They could also make dihydroxyacetone in a lab, adding another layer to the honey security problem.

Charltons team and other industry and governmental regulators needed a surefire way to identify authentic Manka honey. Finally, in 2014, a Japanese researcher named Yoji Kato identified a complex compound that isnt easy to replicate. He called it leptosperin, and its now the standard measure for determining whether a honey labeled Manka is the real thing.

Except that theres a problem: Aussie Manka contains leptosperin, too, according to Brooks. The New Zealand Manka product and the Australian Manka products are equivalent, he says.

Try telling that to a Kiwi. The environment definitely changes things, asserts Rawcliffe. He argues that discrepancies between the soil, light, and weather in Australia and New Zealand make a difference in the quality of the honeyjust as they do with wine. The wine out of Napa Valley is completely different from the wine out of New Zealand, Rawcliffe says. Hes backed up, sort of, by a study in the New Zealand Journal of Botany that concluded local soils change how much nectar a Manka plant producesthough its antibacterial properties remain the same.

But the trees at the center of the dispute actually grow in many countries, in all kinds of conditions. Theyre so hardy and fast-growing that they have become an invasive species in some places, though there are more Manka trees in Southern Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else, where indigenous Maori people used the tree to make fence posts, spears, roofing, and even scented toilet oil.

The Unique Manka Factor Honey Association argues that this cultural and geographical heritage should give Kiwis exclusive rights to the word Manka. They have lodged an application with the New Zealand Intellectual Property Office for a certification trademark, which would secure the name Manka Honey internationally. They could then take honey producers who use the Manka name without approval to court. (Roquefort, France used it on American William Faehndrich after he sold sheeps milk blue-mold cheese from Italy and Hungary under the moniker Roquefort Cheese.)

No matter how the trademark dispute turns out, Brooks, a proud Australian, thinks theres rich irony in New Zealand trying to claim ownership of the Manka. The odd thing is that New Zealand Manka is actually an Australian plant that blew across the Tasman Sea, he says. We argue theyre trying to copyright an Australian plant.

That’s a contention that the Kiwis, no doubt, will dispute.

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