Kanuka honey is a close cousin to the more famous manuka honey, produced from the nectar of the kanuka tree (Kunzea ericoides).
Both are native to New Zealand and have similar properties, with kanuka offering antibacterial properties, as well as studies showing effectiveness for various skin ailments, however, kanuka is much less known and produced in much fewer quantities.
Nonetheless, kanuka is still a delicious honey that has a loyal following and is still produced by a select few devoted apiaries in New Zealand today.
In this article, we will look into the origins of kanuka honey, how its made, the science behind it, and where you can buy some for yourself to try!
The Kanuka Tree
The kanuka tree, scientifically known as Kunzea ericoides, serves as the primary source of nectar used to make kanuka honey
(Kunzea is the Latin form for Kunze, the name of the German naturalist who discovered it, ericoides alludes to Erica, the heathers and heaths).
Flourishing in New Zealand’s diverse landscapes, this evergreen tree features slender branches, small white or pink flowers, and needle-like leaves.
Nowadays, you mostly find wild kanuka in the East Cape of New Zealand, though it’s present in some other areas too.
How was Kanuka Honey Discovered?
Back in the 1980s, a researcher named Peter Molan started exploring the antibacterial activity of different honey types. While he tested honey from all over the world, many were native to New Zealand.
The test was a simple in vitro test against the common S. Aureus bacteria, more commonly known to us as “staph”.
While most kinds of honey were able to inhibit the staph bacteria to some degree, it was far more pronounced in the manuka and kanuka honey samples. Even after heating and diluting with water, manuka and kanuka were still very effective. Clearly, these were no normal kinds of honey!
Interestingly, kanuka was not widely spread throughout New Zealand at the time it was discovered, mostly clustered on Great Barrier Island. But the native Maori, as is usual for humans, started to clear forests by burning and cutting, for reasons such as hunting and settling. This gave the kanuka trees, which were once crowded and limited, a chance to bloom and spread. By the time the first honey bees were brought to New Zealand in the early 1800s, the kanuka tree had spread through New Zealand forest and was in full bloom.
The Maori quickly discovered the usefulness of the kanuka tree, both medicinally for the flowers, and that the wood of the trunk was strong but light enough to use as paddles.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when researchers isolated the honey from the flowers as potentially a medicinal agent and superfood that needed to be further studied.
Kanuka Honey vs. Manuka Honey: A Comparative Analysis
Kanuka honey and its well-known cousin, manuka honey, share similarities but also possess distinct qualities. In fact, as they are often found living together, even the botanists can have a difficult time telling them apart, but even the Maori back in the 1800s knew they were different trees, believing that the manuka tree was the male, and the kanuka (or toa manuka) was the female. The Maori had other names for the tree too, including kopuka, manuka – rauriki, manuea and maru.
Even today, kahikatoa is still used by some Maori in northern New Zealand.
Today, you might hear some botanists refer to manuka as “red tea tree” and kanuka as “white tea tree”, although these names are misnomers in some ways. Manuka has a range of flower colours, from light pink to bright white.
The kanuka flowers are softer and the branches are lighter and feathery, while manuka flowers are larger and firmer.
One thing that distinguishes them easily, though, is kanuka handles dry conditions better, whereas manuka is much better at handling wet conditions (and wet feet) and is far better at handling higher elevations and lower fertility soils.
Kanuka is a taller tree and can grow up to twenty metres high. In fact, some researchers have found kanuka trees over 200 years old. Manuka is generally a smaller tree but can survive in more diverse conditions.
Finally, the seasons are slightly different, as kanuka flowers bloom later than manuka.
Interestingly, the pollens of both manuka and kanuka are almost identical, and cannot be easily told apart (source). One way the two types of honey can be distinguished is by phenolics – a grouping of compounds that all honey has, which contain many bioactive properties. Researchers (led by honey expert Jonathan Stephens, and detailed in his book Food Chemistry) found that while manuka and kanuka share six phenolic acids, they differ significantly in the amount of the acids they contain.
Lastly, we can look at MGO content. While there is at least one study of MGO supposedly being found in kanuka honey, most researchers now believe MGO is confined to manuka honey. Kanuka has high levels of a separate compound known as methoxyphenyllatctic acid. As Christopher Adams discovered that DHA in manuka honey eventually changed into MGO, he did not find any DHA in kanuka nectar (source). This makes testing for the presence of MGO an easy way to distinguish between the two types.
However, while kanuka is not believed to contain MGO, it still shows strong antibacterial activity in studies, similar to manuka. It is believed this could be due to its phenolic acid content and high levels of hydrogen peroxide. As the body of science is much thinner on kanuka, studies are still needed to determine exactly how its antibacterial function works.
One compound called arabinogalactan, made up of two single-molecule sugars (arabinose and galactose) attached to a protein, was found in a unique form in kanuka honey by researchers at the University of Auckland. This was significant because arabinogalactans are found in many plants and known to stimulate the immune system. This discovery showed the immune stimulation of many kinds of honey depended on this specific compound (source).
Kanuka Honey: Derived from the flowers of the kanuka tree (Kunzea ericoides).
Manuka Honey: Sourced from the manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium).
Flavour and Aroma
Kanuka Honey: Offers a delicate, floral flavour with subtle hints of sweetness.
Manuka Honey: Exhibits a more robust, earthy taste with distinct herbal notes.
Kanuka Honey: No MGO content, as no DHA is present.
Manuka Honey: Renowned for its MGO content, giving it potent antibacterial qualities.
unique Health Benefits Of Kanuka Honey
Research is still light on kanuka honey, especially compared to manuka, but the literature we have is promising.
Kanuka honey was shown in this study to be effective at inhibiting the bacteria for acne breakouts. The bacteria Propionibacterium acnes which is responsible for acne was shown to be neutralised by both kanuka and manuka honey.
In this trial of over 100 participants, kanuka honey was shown to improve rosacea symptoms in over 30% of participants.
Finally, this trial showed an almost complete resolution of actinic keratoses after application of kanuka honey. The study found “regular application of Kanuka honey over three months resulted in remission immediately following the treatment period with no signs of recurrence at nine months.”
Kanuka essential oil is also a favourite essential oil, and while studies and trials are sparse, it understandably has much anecdotal evidence of being beneficial for skin issues as the studies above have shown, including treating skin lesions, infections, rashes, and even for colds and some inflammatory conditions. It is often used as a substitute for its closely related cousin – Australian tea tree oil.
Is kanuka honey better than manuka honey?
While kanuka honey possesses unique qualities and potential health benefits, it’s not as well studied as manuka. Manuka honey is generally recognised for its higher MGO levels, while kanuka is not believed to contain MGO. It still has antibacterial action though, most likely due to its phenolic acid content. Manuka is generally believed to be a better antibacterial agent, but more research is needed.
Can kanuka honey be used for skin care purposes?
Yes, kanuka honey has shown potential skincare benefits and is used in natural skincare products for its nourishing and soothing properties. According to this study, “In vitro studies show the New Zealand native Kanuka honey to have immunomodulatory and antimitotic effects, with recent evidence suggesting efficacy of topical application in a variety of dermatological contexts, including rosacea and psoriasis.”
Is kanuka honey cheaper than manuka honey?
Yes, in general, kanuka honey is less expensive than manuka honey, probably due to the lesser requirements of grading and authentication.
Is kanuka essential oil good for skin?
While there are no official studies, it makes sense that kanuka essential oil has been used successfully for various skin conditions, infections, and even common colds and flus. Similarly to manuka honey, kanuka has its own antibacterial functions and the honey has shown promise in various skin ailments, the essential oil has shown many of the same benefits. You can buy kanuka essential oil on Amazon.
Where can you buy kanuka honey?
Probably the best known kanuka honey producer in New Zealand is Moutain Valley. You can buy authentic kanuka honey directly from their website!
Photo credits: Kathy Warburton, Sid Mosdell
- Manuka: The Biography by Cliff Van Eaton
- Antimicrobial effect of manuka and kanuka honey
- RCT of topical kanuka honey for treatment of rosacea
- Successful treatment of actinic keratosis with kanuka honey
- Analytica Labs: What Do We Know About Kanuka Honey?
- The effect of New Zealand kanuka, manuka and clover honeys on bacterial growth