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Could bee pollen be the answer for everything from colds to cancer?

Bee pollen has been hailed as a miracle cure, but there’s no hard data that the supplement does anything that is advertised.

ALI JAREKJI/REUTERS

The question

I am hearing a lot about the health benefits of bee pollen. Should I take this as a supplement? Can I add it to my smoothie?

The answer

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It's being hailed as a miracle cure for everything from low energy and dull skin to colds and flu and, yes, cancer.

Bee-pollen advocates also claim taking it can help shed pounds, curb food cravings, improve athletic performance, ease aching joints, boost immunity, treat asthma, even slow down aging. That's a lot of promises.

Its purported health benefits have made bee pollen increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, this so-called superfood is predicted to become one of 2015's new health-food crazes. Last year, Victoria Beckham tweeted about her obsession with bee pollen.

Bee pollen, as the name suggests, is a mixture of pollens collected by honeybees as they fly from one flower to another. Once gathered, bees carry pollen back to the hive as food for the colony.

Turns out, the extent of research on bee pollen's supposed health benefits is limited at best. Three small studies looked at the ability of bee pollen to improve sports performance and turned up nothing.

In 2002, a study of 29 women hinted that bee pollen, as one component of a herbal formula, could ease some symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. A study published in 2008 suggested that men suffering from enlarged prostate might benefit from bee pollen. But that's about it.

The majority of claims have not been vetted in controlled clinical studies. Some are based on test-tube studies looking at the biological activity of individual constituents of bee pollen. There's little doubt that bee pollen has biologically active compounds. There's just no hard data that the supplement does anything it's advertised to do.

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Indeed, most claims about bee pollen are evidence-free, backed by testimonials and overhyped by the companies selling it. The website of British Columbia-based Enviro Bee Products Distributors, for instance, states: "Science shows that bee pollen … has natural rejuvenating powers, aids beauty, boosts energy, extends lifespan, fights allergies (and possibly even cancer) …" Yet, there's not one reference to substantiate such claims.

If anything, bee pollen is nutritious. Chemical analysis show it's a rich source of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron.

The nutrient composition of bee pollen varies depending on the bee's plant source and geographic region. Bee pollen may also contain bee saliva and nectar.

Generally, bee pollen is fairly safe, at least when taken for the short term. The most significant safety concern, however, is potential reactions in people with allergies to pollen, honey or bee stings. Symptoms could include itching, swelling, light-headedness, shortness of breath, even life-threatening anaphylaxis.

If you have these allergies, hay fever or asthma, do not use bee pollen without first consulting your doctor. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised against the supplement.

If you don't have any allergies and want to try bee pollen, it can be purchased in powdered form, granules, tablets or capsules in health-food and supplement stores. (Just don't expect miracles.) To prolong its shelf life, store bee pollen in the refrigerator or freezer.

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Due to the lack of evidence about its efficacy, there is no standard dose. In general, it's recommended you start slowly with 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of bee pollen a day, and then gradually increase to one to two teaspoons daily.

Bee pollen has a slightly sweet, floral taste. Granules and powder can be blended into protein shakes and smoothies, added to cereal, stirred into yogurt, incorporated into salad dressings and sprinkled over popcorn.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel; lesliebeck.com.

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