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Bee Pollen, Royal Jelly,
and Propolis

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

"Bee pollen" is actually pollen from flowers that is collected from bees as they enter the hive or is harvested by other means. Pollen granules stick to the bees' legs and other body parts as they help themselves to nectar (the precursor of honey) inside the flowers. Pollen products are marketed through health-food stores, multilevel distributors, drugstores, mail-order advertising, and the Internet [A,B,C, D].

Misleading Claims

Promoters call bee pollen "the perfect food" and stress that it contains all of the essential amino acids and many vitamins and minerals [1]. However, none of these nutrients offers any magic, and all are obtained easily and less expensively from conventional foods. The CC Pollen Company of Phoenix, Arizona, has also claimed:

It has been estimated that honeybee pollen contains over 5,000 enzymes and coenzymes, many times more than any other food. . . . Enzymes in the body are not only necessary for perpetual healing and digestion but for life itself. Without enzymes, life is impossible. Also, enzymes protect against premature aging. It has been reliably stated that only honeybee pollen contains all known enzymes in perfect proportion and perfect balance. [1]

The above statement is erroneous. Pollen does not contain all known enzymes, and even if it did, that would not contribute to human health. The enzymes in plants and other species of animals help regulate the metabolic functions of their respective species. When ingested, they do not act as enzymes within the human body, because they are digested rather than absorbed intact into the body.

Bee pollen has also been claimed to improve athletic and sexual performance; slow the aging process; promote both weight loss and weight gain; prevent infection, allergy, and cancer; and alleviate more than 60 other health problems.

No scientific study supports any claim that bee pollen is effective against any human disease. The few studies that have been done to test its effect on athletic performance have shown no benefit [2-4]. In the mid-1970s, for example, tests conducted on swimmers and cross-country runners found no difference in performance between those who took bee pollen and those who took a placebo [3]. A six-week study of 20 swimmers published in 1982 found no performance difference [4].

Royal jelly, which is secreted from the salivary glands of worker bees, serves as food for all young larvae and as the only food for larvae that will develop into queen bees. Like bee pollen, it has been falsely claimed to be especially nutritious, to provide buoyant energy, and to have therapeutic properties.

Bee pollen and royal jelly should be regarded as potentially dangerous because they cause allergic reactions. People allergic to specific pollens have developed asthma, hives, and anaphylactic shock after ingesting pollen or royal jelly [5-12]. Neurologic and gastrointestinal reactions have also been reported [13,14]. Some cases of asthma and anaphylaxis have been fatal. The potential for serious reactions is widespread because at least 5% of Americans are allergic to ragweed pollen, and bee pollen contains pollen from ragweed or plants that cross-react with ragweed, such as dandelions, sunflowers, or chrysanthemums [15,16]. It has been speculated the presence of these allergens might enable regular users to become desensitized (as would happen with allergy shots). However, the odds of this happening are extremely small. Shots deliver the pollen in significant and controllable amounts, whereas bee pollen taken by mouth delivers unpredictable amounts that get digested [17].

Bees are exposed to various bacterial and chemical contaminants that might be incorporated in products for human consumption [18]. Although both bee pollen and royal jelly contain substances with antibiotic properties, both can sustain the growth of disease-causing organisms and neither has practical use as an antibiotic [19]. Contaminants can also be introduced during processing [18]. In 1995, Montana Naturals International, in Arlee, Montana, had to recall several thousand bottles of a bee pollen/royal jelly/propolis mix because of contamination with lead.

Propolis, also called "bee glue," is a resinous substance bees use to construct and maintain their hives. In laboratory tests, propolis has exhibited a variety of interesting antimicrobial and antitumor properties [20]. However, it has little practical use and can cause contact dermatitis and other allergic reactions [21].

Federal Enforcement Actions

Although violation of an FTC consent agreement can trigger large penalties, Royden Brown continued to promote bee pollen illegally. In May 1994, S&S Public Relations Inc., of Chicago, issued a letter stating: "It's allergy season, but many sufferers aren't suffering anymore. They're using Aller-Bee-Gone, bee pollen tablets that are credited with relieving the symptoms of allergies, asthma, and other respiratory ailments." The accompanying news release added that Brown's lifetime goal was "to eliminate degenerative disease worldwide through the use of bee pollen. However, a few weeks later, bee pollen's most colorful promoter died following injuries sustained in a fall.

For Additional Information

References

  1. Is honeybee pollen the world's only perfect food? (Booklet) Phoenix, AZ: CC Pollen Company, 1984.
  2. Steben RE, Boudroux P. The effects of pollen and pollen extracts on selected blood factors and performance of athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 18:271-278, 1978.
  3. Larkin T. Bee pollen as a health food. FDA Consumer 18(3):21 22, 1984.
  4. Maughan RJ, Evans SP. Effects of pollen extract upon adolescent swimmers. British Journal of Sports Medicine 16:142-145, 1982.
  5. Thien FC and others. Asthma and anaphylaxis induced by royal jelly. Clinical and Experimental Allergy 26:216-222, 1996.
  6. Shaw D and others. Traditional remedies and food supplements. A 5-year toxicological study (1991-1995). Drug Safety 17:342-356, 1997.
  7. Prichard M, Turner KJ. Acute hypersensitivity to ingested processed pollen. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine 15:346-347, 1985.
  8. Yonei Y and others. Case report: Haemorrhagic colitis associated with royal jelly intake. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 12:495-499, 1997.
  9. Geyman JP. Anaphylactic reaction after ingestion of bee pollen. Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 7:250-252, 1994.
  10. Mansfield LE, Goldstein GB. Anaphylactic reaction after ingestion of local bee pollen. Annals of Allergy 47:154-156, 1981.
  11. Lombardi C and others. Allergic reactions to honey and royal jelly and their relationship with sensitization to compositae. Allergologia et Immunopathologia 26:288-290, 1998.
  12. Leung R and others. Royal jelly consumption and hypersensitivity in the community. Clinical and Experimental Allergy 27:333-336, 1997.
  13. Lin FL and others. Hypereosinophilia, neurologic, and gastrointestinal symptoms after bee pollen ingestion. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 83:793-796, 1989.
  14. Puente S and others. Eosinophilic gastroenteritis caused by bee pollen sensitization. Medicina Clinica 108:698-700, 1997.
  15. Mirkin G. Can bee pollen benefit health? JAMA 262:1854, 1989.
  16. Helbling A and others. Allergy to honey: Relation to pollen and honey bee allergy. Allergy 47:41-49, 1992.
  17. Wandycz K. Allergies: Runny nose? Itchy throat? Bee pollen helps some allergy victims, but for most people it's a waste of money. Forbes, April 25, 1995, p 414.
  18. Fleche C and others. Contamination of bee products and risk for human health: Situation in France. Revue Scientifique et Technique 16:609-19, 1997.
  19. Sanford MT. Pollen marketing. Fact Sheet ENY-118. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Feb 1995.
  20. Burdock GA. Review of the biological properties and toxicity of bee propolis. Food and Chemical Toxicology 36:347-363, 1998.
  21. Hausen BM and others. Propolis allergy (I): Origin, properties, usage and literature review. Contact Dermatitis 17:163-170, 1987.
  22. Ben Kinchlow and Madeline Balletta have a secret they want to share with you. They both have major responsibilities and hectic schedules. They both travel extensively. They have a secret . . . a God-given food that has already helped hundreds of thousands of Christians. Advertisement in Human Events, Aug 20, 1999, p 15.
  23. Bee-Alive Web site, Accessed Aug 22, 1999.

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This article was revised on September 17, 1999.