The invention of BioActive Honey Grading - an interview with founder Peter Ward

Peter Ward - Head Beekeeper for New Zealand Honey Co.

When did you come up with the term Bioactive?

Peter: "2008. It came from a realisation amongst the foodie community through the 2000s about the healing properties that there are in food. Bioactive was a buzzword for us that circulated after we discovered that there was a wide range of activity found in honey and was really beneficial for the human body. For Manuka Honey, it was high levels of antibacterial activity. For Thyme Honey it was high levels of antioxidant activity and for Beech Forest Honeydew Honey it was high levels of oligosaccharides which helps the body with the absorption of micronutrients like magnesium and potassium. Beech Forest Honeydew Honey is also a high preemptive antioxidant, which destroys free radicals in the body. Manuka is the only honey in the world that is found to be very high in its antibacterial properties. We had product in Holland and Barrett stores, [a] big health food chain in the UK and we developed a lot of marketing material for them centred around BioActive activity in honey.

When we looked at measuring the bioactivity, Dr. Peter Molan had already developed the scale for measuring the activity in Manuka Honey, which was from 1-30. 1 being the lowest activity measured and 30 being the highest. What we found was that similar scale of 1-30 in Manuka Honey could also be placed alongside Thyme and Beech Forest Honey. We used to print a number on the label of Manuka, Thyme and Beech between the numbers of 1-30 to show that the honey had very high levels of activity and meant that consumers were able to know exactly how much activity was in the honey they were purchasing. It was called the BioActivity number. It was independently tested by laboratories and gave the consumer a guarantee that that honey had really high levels of active ingredients that they were looking for in their food products."

Who was involved in the founding of BioActive?

Peter: "Myself, Chris McElroy and David McMillan. At this point, UMF was already established. Originally when we started, we were measuring the total antibacterial activity of the honey. Often we could have honey well in excess of grade 20, but the actual UMF reading might only be a 10. BioActivity wasn’t measuring just UMF/MGO it was actually measuring all of the components in the honey that kill bacteria."

What other brands use the BioActive measure?

Peter: "Naturally, most brands that sell Manuka Honey have the measure on the label. But we were the only company that extended that range of measure of activity, which is called the functional activity that is in food. We were the only company that used that functional measure on our Thyme and Beech Forest Honey. That was sold extensively throughout the UK and very well received by the public. BioActive name and number were on the label on a scale of 1-30.

When we tested the honey if it proved to be at the very highest level of activity that there was available for any Thyme Honey in the world then it would be a 25+. Beech Forest Honeydew had the highest level of prebiotic activity than any other honey in the world."

Does Clover have activity?

Peter: "Yes, all honey does. BioActivity is the type of activity that is associated with each honey."

Thyme = Antioxidant

Beech Forest Honeydew = Prebiotic

Manuka = Antibacterial

Peter: "Really, what we were wanting to tell the customer was that when they pay a relatively higher price than normal shelf honey they will gain the health benefits from this honey. All Honey has natural healing abilities. Average clover Honey might be a 5+. If you are wanting to treat a particular health issue then Thyme, Beech or Manuka is far better than your average clover Honey."

Would you recommend BioActive honey over standard Manuka Honey?

Peter: "To keep the honey bioactive you have to keep the honey in its raw state. Most Manuka Honey is in its raw state, not all Manuka Honey but particularly the UMF rated honey. UMF rated honey is bioactive as well. A lot of other honey in the world is quite highly processed. New Zealand Honey is not highly processed compared to other honey around the world. To maintain the levels of antioxidants in the honey, you need to treat the honey quite gently in order to hold all of its natural attributes. So when you process the honey you just have to be particularly careful. It is just the guarantee of its naturalness."

What did you want to achieve out of creating BioActive?

Peter: "BioActivity ratings were on all of our jams, drinks and honey. We were doing the jams and drinks at this point and we wanted to be able to tell our customers that what they are eating here is very, very healthy food and probably some of the healthiest food you can consume into your body. By creating the website and BioActive numbering system it really aligned with what was already established with the UMF grading system. The MGO grading system wasn’t even invented then. There was only one numbering system out there which was the UMF numbering system. So we wanted to put a measuring system out there that told consumers how good the other honeys were, which is why we developed the BioActive measurement."

Today there are all these other measurements is it confusing for consumers?

Peter: "Look, it probably is and that’s why we decided to pull back from using BioActive. Everyone was measuring different things particularly with Manuka Honey and it was very confusing for the consumer. We supported the fact that there should be just one numbering system to remove confusion. The consumer was so confused by all these different numbering systems that it was actually starting to turn customers away from the product. We said in the end that there should just be one numbering system, particularly with Manuka. Unfortunately, with the other honey, [Thyme and Beech] part of the food laws that were introduced meant that the only numbering system you could put on the front of the honey label was MGO or UMF. You weren’t allowed to put any other numbering system on the front of any other honeys. So this basically wiped out BioActive from being used on Thyme or Beech Honeys."

What year did you pull back from BioActive?

Peter: "We ran it for probably about 3 years. 2012 was when it started getting quite difficult and there were legislative changes that were going to make it very difficult for us to continue."

What are the rules and regulations around BioActive and how can brands still be using it today when you stopped using it in 2012?

Peter: "It all depends on the markets that they are sold in. If it’s just in the NZ market or if it’s being packed overseas you can put almost anything on it. The UK was our main market then, they also put similar legislation in place but I don't think the US had at that time. We couldn’t export it out of NZ with that numbering on and we couldn’t sell it in the UK with that numbering on, which was the big restriction."

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