Making Kānuka Honey Great Again
Imagine the impact on New Zealand apiculture if kānuka honey could be proven to have health benefits on a par with that of mānuka? It might seem like a stretch, but research from The Experiment Company (TEC) in Auckland is bringing the possibility closer to reality. The latest stage of the research calls for validation of their testing methods and they’ve got the funding to make it happen, now they just need beekeepers to provide the kānuka honey samples.
Apiarist’s Advocate readers first got to know the scientists behind TEC in the December 2020 issue where their goal to add value to New Zealand’s non-mānuka honeys was outlined. Scientists Sunil Pinnamaneni and Dr Swapna Gannabathula’s primary aim is to confirm the immunomodulatory benefits of kānuka (Kunzea ericoides) honey and and provide an accurate measuring system for them, which could lead to a new rating classification for commercial application.
Gannabathula, who has studied New Zealand honeys since 2011 and works as a research associate with Auckland University of Technology as well as with TEC, has been conducting research into the presence of Arabinogalactan proteins (AGPs) in kānuka honey. These proteins, when combined with Apisimin in the honey, aids the body’s immune response, TEC believe.
The experimental work has found higher levels of AGPs in kānuka honey than others tested, including mānuka. The findings are encouraging for the TEC team and, more broadly, the New Zealand honey industry, but there is still work to be done before the industry can reap any benefits, Pinnamaneni says.
“Now we are further moving to validate Dr Swapna’s previous work but, most importantly, we are validating the method itself so that it is repeatable, reproducible and able to be commercialised. That is the most important thing because, if we are going to do this research, it has to be useful for the beekeepers at the end of the day,” Pinnamaneni says.
Funding of TEC and their research into kānuka honey has thus far come from a mix of private backers within industry, known as the Kānuka Science Group, and government agency Callaghan Innovation. The latest project began in October and is budgeted to cost about $110,000. A recently announced extra funding boost of $42,000 from Callaghan Innovation is a boon.
The Kānuka Science Group backers include Pinnamaneni and wife Sri Govindaraju’s honey company Zealandia Honey, as well as Doc O’Connor of Koa Honey Ltd, producers for the Native Kiwi honey label.
As well as confirming the potency of kānuka honey by quantifying the presence of AGPs, the next batch of research will include an attempt to form a definition of kānuka honey through chemical markers.
“These markers are not unique to kānuka honey, but the combinations are, just like the combination of four markers are unique to New Zealand mānuka [according to the Ministry for Primary Industries’ export standard],” Pinnamaneni says.
He is aware of the contentious nature of the export standard for mānuka honey, but the accuracy of TEC’s work will be much improved if beekeepers come to the party and supply accurate kānuka honey samples.
“It is like a fingerprint and as you get more samples the definition will become more accurate. MPI is reanalysing their definition using the same thinking. This will be the same. It is not a black and white thing, there is always a grey area with these sorts of characteristics.
“At the end of the day, the definition is only as good as the samples you get. If the beekeeper says it is a kānuka monofloral, then we have to trust the beekeeper. From there we can try and set required markers which determine up to what levels the sample is multifloral kānuka, and over which it is monofloral.”
While the chemical “definitions” of honey samples rely on extraction of various markers, testing for AGPs is quite different. A process known as rocket gel electrophoresis will be used to quantify protein molecules. It is a standard method to quantify the likes of AGPs and provides accurate and reproduceable tests according to Pinnamaneni, who is currently based in Dubai and undertaking honey research for the United Arab Emirates government.
“Mānuka is well known for antibacterial properties, we want to find out if kānuka is just as valuable for its immunomodulatory properties – i.e good for your immunity. To do that we need to quantify the active component, the AGPs, and we need to link that concentration and other chemical markers to the immune response,” the TEC founder explains.
“It’s a hope, but we are confident it will work. Time will tell, but we need as many samples as we can from different parts of New Zealand so we can accurately quantify these compounds. It is critical to the project.
“If beekeepers think the samples are kānuka monofloral, then that is the sample we need.”
Meeting a Marketing Need
While the funding boost supplied by Callaghan Innovation is encouraging, the Kānuka Science Group still provides the majority of the funding. Doc O’Connor, while not a beekeeper himself, has been connected to the honey industry for a number of years as a business partner and mentor.
He first came into contact with the husband-and-wife duo of Pinnamaneni and Govindaraju about five years ago and calls the couple “absolutely enthusiastic” honey researchers. With the Zealandia Honey and TEC founders driving the research he knew it was in good hands, but it was another insight that really proved a catalyst for him to provide funding assistance.
“With our Native Kiwi brand we ran trials selling kānuka honey on Google shop to the American market two years ago. We were staggered with the number of sales we were making. That's really where my interest seriously took off,” O’Connor says.
The ex-data storage technologies business owner lives in Auckland, but hails from Northland, and that is where much of the Native Kiwi honey is harvested.
“Seeing all that acreage of kānuka which grows up there, my thinking turns to, how can this be best used instead of just heaping it amongst mānuka multi floral, or as bush honey, which has limited value to a beekeeper? People have different stories, but it probably gets the producers $5 to $7 per kg.”
His interest was also piqued by the success of Honey Lab, which uses kānuka honey in its skin treatment products retailed in New Zealand and sold online.
More wider uses and marketing of kānuka honey is hindered by both the lack of an accurate definition of the source of the honey, as well as any extra unique selling points, such as immunostimulatory benefits. Thus, TEC’s research to overcome these hurdles is very much required in O’Connor’s eyes.
“At the moment you can't really market kānuka honey because, first of all, we don't know what it is, we need a definition. And secondly, what's the point of marketing kānuka as a honey if its flavour profile is not too different from mānuka? Where’s the differentiation? Well, the differentiation is going to have to come down to health properties, which is the big one showing up through Swapna Gannabathula’s research into AGPs, alongside some other compounds.”
Making it Happen
While the Kānuka Science Group, through its fundraising, and The Experiment Company, as the working arm, have carried out and are undertaking the majority of the work required, their need for more kānuka honey samples will need to be met by beekeepers across New Zealand.
“We want people to support the project by sending in reliable samples of kānuka honey. This is critical for the definition and getting accurate output,” Pinnamaneni says.
In the longer term, a group marketing effort will be required O’Connor believes.
“I've always said, if everyone starts selling kānuka honey then that's great. It's the only way it'll get noticed eventually. Not one company can do it. They just don’t have the tentacles to get into enough markets,” the Kānuka Science Group backer says.
Right now, there’s research work to be done and an important six months looms as TEC looks to add to its promising findings thus far and take their testing techniques to the commercial honey testing laboratories.
CAN YOU HELP THE EXPERIMENT COMPANY’S KĀNUKA HONEY RESEARCH? – provide samples now.
Do you have any remaining honey samples from predominantly kanuka areas? Will you have any soon? Even better, can you provide samples from the same sites from multiple seasons?
Mail samples of 100-200g or more to:
School of Science Reception (Attention: Swapna Gannabathula and Nazimah Hamid) Level 5, WS Building
Auckland University of Technology
34 Saint Paul Street
Along with sample please provide:
· Your contact details
· Floral type (approximate %s)
· Land type (e.g. Urban, bush, farm or orchard)
· Harvest date