The Bee Pollen Gold Rush: Panning For Truth

In this 8-part series, Marloes, a former research biologist, attempts to uncover the truth behind the latest superfood trends. Where does all the attention come from, and what is the scientific evidence that supports it?

This week, she finds out whether bee pollen is the real deal or fool's gold.

Of all the super-foods health claims out there, the ones for bee pollen must be some of the most outrageous. But let me explain the backstory first. Many of you will have heard about these tiny multicoloured nuggets, now found in many mainstream supermarkets as well as dedicated nutrition stores and small, niche pop-up stands. Bee pollen is being touted as nature's gold; but, being the skeptic that I am, I suspect a sticky layer of (marketing) romanticism has been drizzled over the truth.  

A forager bee filling her handy leg-baskets with nutritious yellow pollen.

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Bee pollen is an edible dietary supplement, sold by the jar, and is literally balls of pollen 'processed' by bees. As Angela puts it:

“(Bee pollen) is simply flower pollen with a little bit of magic added by the bee”.

You've got to hand it to her, 'magic' sounds so much better than 'bee-saliva', which is what the bees actually use to stick the minuscule pollen grains together with. The bees lick their forelegs and brush the pollen that collects on their bodies during foraging into their panniers (a.k.a leg-baskets, which sound ridiculously handy, by the way). Then, back at the hive, the dry pollen is mixed with sticky honey or nectar, which creates the final product: bee pollen, also known (adorably) as bee bread.

Natural candy: jars of brightly coloured bee pollen and darker coloured honey.

Image Credit: Freeimages.com

Honey and humans have a long history together, both in the world of medicine and food. Over time, being the curious creatures that we humans are, we started trying other bee-products. You can now find many shops selling propolis (literally bee-glue, which bees use to seal gaps in the hive) or even Royal Jelly (queen-bee food). All of it is claimed to heal or improve various bits and pieces of our bodies.

Then, along came Polly(en). Many bee pollen 'activists' loudly proclaim that it is, in fact, nothing less than the fountain of youth; a claim based on a poorly verified study by a Russian botanist who discovered very old russians in a remote mountain village. When bee pollen supporters encounter people who doubt that tiny balls of plant sperm and bee spit are not the holy grail, it's just a matter of, well...haters gonna hate.

Bee pollen is usually bright yellow, but red, purple, green, brown, orange and other colours are common too. The colour of each granule depends on when and from what type of flower the bees collected the pollen from.

Image Credit: Google Images

Although it is true that bee pollen is crammed full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and is protein-rich (the main use in the hive is as the colony's protein source), its many health claims for humans are mostly unsubstantiated by modern science. Bear in mind that you are typically 100 times larger than the average bee; consuming the equivalent amount of bee pollen in order to benefit is quite a feat. One study did show pollen extracts having anti-inflammatory effects, but incidentally this very effect increased the risk of a heart attack in susceptible individuals...in other words; not all chemicals with an anti-inflammatory effect are  beneficial overall. Remember too, that pollen is an allergy trigger; something many of us are keenly aware of on a warm summer's day.The sad irony is that alleviating allergies is supposedly one of bee pollen's biggest benefits.

Nonetheless, before you start burning beehives, know that a sprinkle of bee pollen in your bowl of yoghurt, fruit smoothie or summer salad won't usually harm you; it's actually quite a sweet-tasting and colourful addition. Just be aware that even if a food is natural it isn't necessarily safe. Nature, beautiful and nourishing as she may be, is also full of her own toxins and allergens! Personally, I would recommend raw honey as an alternative, and not to fall for fool's gold.  

Please do support your local beekeepers and honey sellers, especially since our bees are dying on a global scale. Find Wild Hives, a great London honey stall at Camden Lock Market, Broadway Market and Kings Cross Real Food Market throughout the year.

Header Image Credit: Killercandy15 (Deviantart.com)

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