Ask the Diet Doctor: The Buzz on Bee Pollen

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Q: I keep hearing about bee pollen. Should I take it or add it to my smoothies?

A: Bees are incredible creatures that provide us a lot more than just honey for our tea. They also do a ton of work behind the scenes in our food supply, driving the pollination process so that plants can grow and produce. In California, more than 1.5 million bees are needed each year to pollinate almond trees; due to bee shortages, many of the needed bees are trucked in from other areas in the U.S.

The products that bees create and/or concentrate also have a long medicinal history. Honey is an effective cough suppressant and the go-to “cough syrup” in our household when my children get sick in the winter. But the ailment-alleviating effects of honey pale in comparison to the touted effects of bee pollen.

Do not confuse this with royal jelly or honeycombs (two other bee products that come boasting health benefits). Bee pollen, as the name suggests, is pollen collected from bees. It is packed and concentrated in the hive for use by the queen bee. Chemical analyses of bee pollen show that it is nutritionally diverse, primarily containing carbohydrates but also protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

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Bee pollen supplementation comes with many promises, such as increased athletic performance, treatment of asthma, weight loss, and the treatment of addictions. However none of these claims have been vetted in a clinical setting. [Tweet this fact!] A 1982 study found no benefits in athletic performance of adolescent swimmers supplementing with bee pollen. And while in the past some people may have found a weight-loss benefit when taking a particular bee pollen supplement, that is just because it was laced with an illegal weight-loss pharmaceutical: The FDA recalled Classic Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsules, a bee pollen supplement marketed for its weight-loss effects, because it was found to contain Sibutramine, a weight-loss drug pulled from the U.S. market due to increased risk of users having a heart attack or stroke.

A relatively unknown danger of consuming bee pollen is anaphylaxis. The potential anaphylactic danger of bee pollen supplements is compounded by the fact that it is often used to treat allergies. Initially reported in 1979 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the risk of a severe allergic reaction is a real and scary side effect of a supplement that is lacking real clinical evidence to support its uses in traditional medicine. This unbalanced relationship between the potential cost-benefit and lack of solid clinical evidence for the benefit of bee pollen takes it off my list of potential supplements for my clients to use, in pill form or added to smoothies as a “boost.”

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