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Scientists have unlocked the secret of manuka honey's claimed anti-bacterial properties, which one producer expects will lead to a boom in exports.

The honey is widely promoted as an ingredient of complementary health products and has also been tested in mainstream New Zealand medical settings.

Researchers at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany have identified the honey's anti-bacterial compound as methylglyoxal (MGO).

Kerry Paul, the chief executive of Manuka Health, a New Zealand supplier of manuka honey products, said the findings and the relative levels of MGO in different honeys would allow stronger claims to be made for manuka honey products.

All honey had anti-bacterial properties, Mr Paul said, and it had long been known that honey made by bees from native New Zealand manuka trees was more powerful than others.

"But we haven't known until the German discovery what the compound is that is responsible. For the last 15 years, people have been trying to identify this unique manuka factor.

"The significance of identifying the compound creates the potential for New Zealand to be a major supplier of natural health products to global markets using MGO manuka honey as a platform product."

Mr Paul said the medical fraternity had not fully accepted manuka honey because the industry was not able to explain its anti-bacterial properties.

"Now we know it is MGO we can demonstrate that specific concentrations can be linked to providing protection or perhaps even cures for a range of health issues."

He said the researchers tested more than 80 honeys from around the world and found MGO levels between 350 and 700mg/kg in manuka honey samples. The other types of honey contained between zero and 10mg/kg.

Previous research had shown the highest concentrations of MGO in any food or beverage were about 100 mg/kg in cocoa and coffee.

Following the research findings, Mr Paul's company joined the university in a bid to set industry standards for the use of manuka honey products.