May 23 2012
Among the myriad of supplements being offered to the public are various bee products, including bee pollen. The claims made for bee pollen supplements are typically over-hyped and evidence-free, as is typical of this poorly regulated industry. The claims from bee-pollen-supplements.com are representative:
The benefits are enormous and the substance has been proven by many health experts. This particular substance is known as an effective immune booster and one of the best ways to achieve a sound nutritional regime.
The pollen from the bee has been proven to increase sexual functions in both men and women. It stimulates our organs, as well as our glands and is known to improve the natural increase on a person’s lifespan.
What you never find on such websites are references to published peer-reviewed studies that substantiate the specific claims being made. There are also concerns about safety which have not been adequately studied.
A recent case report highlights one safety concern regarding bee pollen products – allergic and even anaphylactic reactions. The Canadian Medical Association Journal reports:
A 30-year-old woman with seasonal allergies but no history of allergies to food, drugs, insects or latex had an anaphylactic reaction after taking bee pollen. She had swelling of the eyelids, lips and throat, difficulty swallowing, hives and other life-threatening symptoms. After emergency treatment and discontinuation of the bee pollen supplements, there were no further reactions.
This is also not the first report. There is another case report of anaphylaxis from bee pollen in 2001, and another in 2010. Those with a history of airborne allergies to pollen show positive reactivity to bee pollen supplements, but a reaction can occur even without a history of allergies.
Allergic reaction is also not the only reported risk from bee pollen products. There is a published case report of a photosensitive skin reaction to a supplement containing bee pollen in one patient. Another report details a case of renal failure from bee pollen. Yet another study found substances known to cause liver damage (hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids) in bee pollen.
These studies highlight the potential health risks of bee pollen supplements, but do not document the magnitude of the risk – and that is precisely the problem. In many countries, such as the US, there is no need for specific safety studies of supplements prior to marketing. This regulation, and popular belief in the safety of such products, is largely the result of the naturalistic fallacy – the notion that because bee pollen is “natural” (a vague term without a specific definition) it must be safe. Of course nature is full of deadly toxins, so this reasoning does not follow.
In medicine it is not adequate to assess risk alone. Rather, we consider the risk vs benefit of any intervention. It is clear that injesting bee pollen products is not risk free, and the risks may be substantial. Only controlled clinical trials will establish exactly what the magnitude of potential risks from bee pollen is. We also need controlled clinical trials to assess any potential health benefit from these products. Unfortunately, such studies are completely lacking.
Many of the claims for bee pollen are supported by the notion that it is a “superfood” – a dubious category that is used to claim miraculous health benefits from “perfectly balanced” foods. Such claims are based on the fallacy of more is always better, and an exaggerated role of nutrition in overall health. Not all alleged superfoods are even good sources of nutrition (perhaps the most notorious being wheat grass juice), but even for those that are, the claims made for superfoods are not justified by an evidence or even plausibility. There is no theoretical benefit to deriving all required nutrition from one food source (even assuming that is possible) vs just having a well rounded diet.
There are some older studies of bee pollen as an “ergogenic” – an alleged category of food that enhances athletic performance. The consensus of research is that bee pollen has no ergogenic benefit. That is the extent of research into bee pollen as a super food – negative.
Everything else is hype and anecdote. Unfortunately, online information about bee pollen is overwhelmed by hype from companies and individual selling bee pollen products. One site claims you will live to 125 from eating bee pollen, and is complete with the typical anecdotes about some village in the Caucasus mountains of Russia who eat bee pollen and live to be 125. These are the same people that were used to sell the health benefits of eating yogurt (and still are). This claim linking their longevity to bee pollen is repeated endlessly on bee pollen sites, and all refers back to the work of Dr. Nicolai Tsitsin, a Russian botanist from the first half of the 20th century. I could find nothing substantiated about these reports – it seems to be bee pollen legend.
Other bee pollen health claims are completely unsubstantiated by controlled clinical trials. Some are based upon preclinical studies looking at the constituents and biological properties of bee pollen. There is no doubt that bee pollen contains many biologically active chemicals, and it is not implausible that one or more of these chemicals might have a medically useful property. It’s just as plausible, and a-priori more likely, that they will have properties that have negative health effects, as indicated above.
One study did find anti-inflammatory effects of some extracts from bee pollen. The anti-inflammatory effect came from inhibition of NO production and inhibition of COX-2 (but not COX-1). Incidentally, the inhibition of COX-2 but not COX-1 is the same effect as Vioxx, that was found to increase the risk of heart attacks in susceptible individuals. The point is that it is difficult to extrapolate from such effects to their net clinical outcome. Not all chemicals with an anti-inflammatory effect are overall beneficial. Further, even if they can be clinically useful that would require purification and standardization of active ingredients.
Interestingly, the claim that bee pollen “boosts the immune system” is common on promotional sites. This is not a meaningful term scientifically, and is used simply because it is the type of claim that can be made without the burden of any evidence. Also, anti-inflammatory effects, if they are significant from consumed bee pollen, is the opposite of “boosting” the immune system, as by definition anti-inflammatory effects result from suppressing or inhibiting one or more aspects of the immune system.
Bee pollen products are a classic example of the current fallacies of the supplement industry. The claims made for such products are full of hype but are completely unsubstantiated by rigorous scientific evidence. What little evidence we do have shows that it is ineffective. What passes for “scientific” evidence on promotional websites are ancient tales and anecdotes. Further, there are increasing safety concerns about bee pollen products, mainly from the potential for allergic reactions but also including organ toxicity.
There is no current basis on which to recommend the use of bee pollen products. There is a basis for caution, however.
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