“The discovery of methylglyoxal (MGO) was the major factor responsible for establishing the credibility of manuka honey worldwide”
“The industry moved from marketing the honey on a holistic basis to one based on credible scientific evidence leading to an elevation in interest from the international scientific and medical community”
“ The discovery was a major disruptive factor on the industry creating a business case study on how disruption leads to competitive advantage”.
“Eventually the New Zealand manuka honey industry adopted the MGO rating system to value their honey”
The focus of my University Degrees and subsequent employment has always been on commercialising science and technology to deliver natural health products to benefit human well-being.
I worked in dairy, meat and biotechnology sectors where there was a common theme: working right across the value chain from farm, processing through to international markets. Many businesses were established employing technologies to produce value added natural health products.
By 2000 there was one frontier I had not entered, however my interest had been sparked from childhood. My Uncle Don was a bee-keeper in Te Awamutu, Waikato during the 1930’s. His focus was producing clover honey for his own retail brand in local shops. During this period large tracts of the manuka tree still existed in the Waikato. With further land development no large tracts exist today.
Uncle Don told me he used to produce manuka honey not through choice but because the bees would collect it at a specific time of year. For him it was waste material and he gave it to dairy farmers to feed to their cows. He would comment, the remarkable outcome was those cows never became ill whereas other cows had the normal run of diseases. Uncle Don queried why did manuka honey prevent cows from becoming ill?
I wanted to find out. This was the start to my journey in the manuka honey industry.
Why is manuka honey unique? We did not find out until 2006. Here is the story leading up to the discovery of methylglyoxal (MGO) in manuka honey.
In 1990 Professor Peter Molan, University of Waikato showed manuka honey had anti-bacterial activity even when hydrogen peroxide was not present. He could not explain why so he called it “non-peroxide activity”. Hydroxen peroxide activity was not stable however he showed non-peroxide activity was stable which made manuka honey unique. Professor Molan modified the agar diffusion assay to measure the zone of inhibition of one species of bacteria. The area of the zone was benchmarked to a numbering system: 10, 15 etc.
Professor Molan realized NPA (non-peroxide activity) was not a very sexy marketing term. He knew sunscreen had a rating system based on its protection level called SPF (sun protection factor). He adapted this for manuka honey by calling it UMF (unique manuka factor). The “factor” causing UMF was unknown.
The early years of raising awareness of the properties of manuka honey was led by Professor Molan and a group of bee-keepers. This informal group called Active Manuka Industry Group (AMHIG) was supported by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE).
Over the next 16 years Professor Molan, scientists worldwide including those working for pharmaceutical companies tried to identify the compound(s) causing the stable antibacterial activity. In the early 2000’s I ran joint research programmes with Professor Molan to identify the “Factor” but to no avail.
In 2002 we replaced AMHIG with the Active Manuka Honey Association where I was the Foundation Chairperson. A high priority was registering the UMF trademark in key markets. This was achieved through a grant I secured from NZTE.
In 2006 the “Holy Grail” of the Manuka Honey industry was discovered by Professor Thomas Henle and his team at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany. Manuka honey produced in the processing plant where I was CEO was used in the research. 80 honey samples from around the world were tested including 5 manuka honey samples for a range of glycation compounds, including methylglyoxal. The result showed the manuka honey samples had elevated levels of methylglyoxal and the rest had virtually nothing.
Was methylglyoxal responsible for the non-peroxide activity? Professor Henle ran experiments using the agar diffusion assay protocols developed by Professor Molan to prove methylglyoxal was responsible for the non-peroxide activity. The Unique Manuka Factor was no longer a mystery. Methylglyoxal is a compound well known in the medical and scientific world. Professor Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, famous for isolating Vitamin C, demonstrated the role of methylgyoxal in the body over 60 years ago.
I kept the discovery secret and took advantage by registering the MGO trademark in major markets and establishing an exclusive research agreement for manuka honey research with the Technical University of Dresden.
This was only the start of the MGO story. Over next five years the discovery of MGO proved to be a major disruption factor in the manuka honey industry.
Myself with Professors Peter Molan and Thomas Henle
Professor Peter Molan
Professor Thomas Henle
Technical University of Dresden
In mid-2007 I decided to announce the discovery of methylglyoxal at the annual National Beekeepers Conference in Dunedin at the conference dinner. The announcement was followed by stunned silence. I made the offer to all manuka honey brands to join us in marketing the product based on its MGO content.
I followed this by extending the invitation to AMHA (later to change its name to UMFHA – Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association). My argument was now we know the compound responsible for the non-peroxide activity we should be open and transparent with consumers. It was easy for consumers to understand because the number related directly to the concentration of MGO in the honey. Furthermore, the concentration was measured on a precise, quantitative technology (HPLC) and the result was repeatable.
This contrasted with UMF where the agar diffusion assay was a qualitative technique where the results were not repeatable since around 12 subjective variables were involved in the testing method. As well, consumers could never understand how the number was derived. These were regular issues being dealt with at AMHA meetings.
The response to my invitation was increasing hostility by AMHA over ensuing months. However, “ a leopard cannot change its spots”. By early 2008 we abandoned any hope of convincing AMHA to adopt MGO. The decision was made to market our products using the MGO trademark.
A marketing campaign supported by packaging changes was quickly implemented. We set out to educate consumers of the world about methylglyoxal and why manuka honey was REALLY unique!
Sales growth across the domestic and international markets demonstrated MGO was the right decision. We grew the Company rapidly to become the No 1 brand in many markets, and became one of the largest two companies in the manuka honey industry by a distance.
Ironically, AMHA switched to adopting MGO in 2011 to determine the value of its honey. The non-peroxide measurement was replaced by methylglyoxal measurement and then converted back to the non-peroxide number. Why not be transparent with your consumers and give them the MGO content?
Requirements for a Rating System
I struggled, like my competitors for too many years with the measurement of UMF. The industry needed to find a rating system for manuka honey that would meet the following criteria:
Based on science (verifiable by independent studies);
Based on labelling the bioactive compound (if known);
Based on a concentration rather than “activity”;
Based on a published method, which can be used by any laboratory (external and independent validation);
Must not be a health claim;
Must be clear to the consumer.
The discovery of methylglyoxal by Professor Henle allowed the development of a rating system proven by science. This was due to:
Methylglyoxal is directly and exclusively responsible for the unique antibacterial activity of manuka honey;
There are no synergistic compounds – if no MGO no antibacterial activity
Rating of manuka honey based on MGO is scientifically sound since the value-adding compound is labelled
Ratings based on other parameters such as “activity” are scientifically not justified and are misleading
Methylglyoxal and Antibacterial Activity
The “proof of the pudding” showing the correlation between methylglyoxal content and non-peroxide antibacterial activity was published in 2008 by TUD:
Methylglyoxal Activity in Gastrointestinal Tract
When methylglyoxal is consumed in honey it remains stable in the mouth and stomach. When it enters the small intestine it is degraded and is not absorbed into the bloodstream. Thereafter, it is eliminated by the body.
Any health benefits through anti-bacterial activity are only possible in the mouth, oesophagus and stomach.
There are no clinical trials to demonstrate this happens in humans.