Opinion: Why honey sales are going through the roof

CRC for Honey Bee Products CEO Dr Liz Barbour writes about honey sales in the time of COVID-19

Recently honey has been flying off the shelves, and the question is being asked whether this is simple stockpiling, or if it’s linked to the potential healing properties of honey. 

Honey is not anti-viral, and therefore unlikely to assist in COVID-19 treatment, however honey is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. Both of these properties are ideal for keeping your mouth and throat healthy.

Some honeys are better than others for their antimicrobial properties. Manuka honey is one variety that is now widely appreciated as being bioactive, but there are many more local Australian honeys that have equal or greater bioactivity. 

The situation is complicated however, as honey bees do not follow orders and do not go to the flowers we want them to. Antimicrobial activity changes depending on which flower nectar is used, so as the abundance and variety of flowers changes, so too do the antimicrobial benefits. How to accurately and consistently measure the antimicrobial activity of honey is a source of scientific debate, so it’s no surprise if you’re a little confused standing in front of a selection of honey brands at the store. 

New honey labelling laws insist on substance identification to claim a link to antimicrobial activity. This suits Manuka honey as it contains one substance (MGO) that has significant antimicrobial activity. This is not the only substance within honey that contributes to antimicrobial activity, many secondary metabolites also transfer from the flower nectar through the honey bee to the honey that promote antimicrobial activity. What is forgotten by these new rules is that honey is a multifaceted complex, and that is its strength against microbes. The complex makes it difficult for a microbe to build resistance against, but also difficult for scientists to precisely categorise.

When honey bees flap their wings to dehydrate the nectar before sealing the comb, they reduce the nectar to a final moisture content that creates a honey osmotic potential that bacteria die in. For Australian honeys the moisture content is mostly within 17-18 percent (Australian standard 21%). Not many bacteria can survive at this moisture content. This osmotic potential also has the benefit of drawing fluids from a wound, and hence with honey treatment, it is best to keep changing the dressing.

And then there is the natural low pH of honey which also discourages bacterial growth and, most importantly, the slow release of hydrogen peroxide from the honey kills and cleans. Glucose oxidase is synthesised within a honey bees honey sac and together with nectar is deposited in the comb to form honey. When the honey is exposed, it absorbs moisture and the enzyme oxidises glucose to form hydrogen peroxide. So honey is complex and has a multifaceted approach to antimicrobial activity.

Asking people I meet how they use honey, the response that struck me was an old family remedy. Her Mother told her to gargle with salt and then take a spoon of honey to soothe the throat. It’s a thought – anti-bacterial, anti-inflammation protection and a mouthful of flavour pleasures. A simple, and enjoyable layer of additional protection in the strange new world.