We owe a lot to bees. We have them to thank for honey, candles, and, thanks to pollination, fruit and vegetables. Their pollen, interestingly, is also in demand. Enjoyed as a specialty food garnish or ingested for its purported health benefits, bee pollen is popping up in restaurants, bars, and markets alike. But is it all that it’s cracked up to be?
Bee pollen is essentially a by-product of the insect’s quest to gather nectar. When they return to their hives, bees store the pollen that accumulated on their bodies in cells (where it then, adorably, becomes known as bee bread) and use it to feed larvae (the young bees). Once stored, the pollen is ready for to be harvested and sold.
There is some evidence that human pollen consumption first began after World War II, when modern pollen traps were invented. However, it is only recently—within the past few decades or so—that bee pollen has been sold as a dietary supplement. And even more recently that it has made its way on top of everything from foie gras to acai bowls.
Erin MacGregor Forbes, the owner of Overland Apiaries and chairman of the board of the Eastern Apicultural Society, has noticed an uptick in the demand for bee pollen in recent years. She credits this bump in consumption to an emphasis on local and slow food movements, and also a higher awareness about the plight of bees.
According to Local Harvest, bee pollen contains eight flavonoids, at least 11 carotenoids, vitamins C, E, all the Bs, amino acids, minerals, more than 100 (!) enzymes and several growth regulators. In other words, any healthy buzzword (ha) you can think of, bee pollen has got it in spades. It also has all eight of the essential amino acids in highly concentrated form (meaning it’s protein-rich), according to an article put out by the Huntington College of Health and Sciences.
To get a better sense of what nutritional benefits bee pollen actually has, we asked registered dieticians Stephanie Clarke and Willow Jarosh of C&J Nutrition to weigh in. They said that while bee pollen does contain a good bit of protein (in fact, it is compositionally 40% protein), it is less digestible than many other protein sources. Also, because the serving size of bee pollen is quite small (it usually ranges from a teaspoon to a tablespoon), the amount of protein you’re getting by eating it is pretty negligible. How much are we talking? One heaping teaspoon of bee pollen purportedly contains one gram of protein. In other words, not enough to merit consuming bee pollen just for the protein.
Of course, bee pollen isn’t popping up in restaurants just because it’s “healthy”—some chefs also like the taste. Jason Hua, chef de cuisine of The Dutch in New York City, decided to use bee pollen to top his beet and citrus salad with quinoa. “I like using it more for the flavor and texture element, less for health benefits,” said Hua. Hua came across bee pollen from his regular honey provider at the Union Square farmers’ market and decided to give it a try for himself. “I really liked it,” he said. “I wanted to find some way to use bee pollen in a dish without the flavor getting totally lost, because it’s subtle.” He landed on incorporating it into this particular dish because “the flavor of [the pollen] reminded me of a beet, a little bit: They’re both naturally sweet with an earthiness and a little bit of bitterness. They matched up together well.”
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Good news: you don’t need to hit up a restaurant to try bee pollen on for size. You can just as easily bring it into your own kitchen and put it on a sandwich, blend it into a shake, or sprinkle it atop a smoothie bowl or over oatmeal to help balance out some of its characteristic bitter flavor. “Some people take a spoonful in the morning instead of coffee,” says Brent Edelen, “The Beekeeper” of Colorado-based Grampa’s Gourmet, a company that sells honey, live bees, and bee pollen. “Then they’re buzzing all day.” (I don’t think he intended the pun, but I couldn’t resist.)
If you’re hesitant to just start popping pollen pellets into your mouth like Tic Tacs, follow master beekeeper Forbes’ advice: Mix bee pollen with honey (keep with a 1:2 ratio), then spread the mixture on an English muffin, much like you would do with peanut butter (or use it to top peanut butter!). Bonus: Because of its low water content, honey is antibacterial and antimicrobial, meaning you don’t have to worry about perishable pollen molding!
Really, though, unless you’re eating it raw for health benefits, bee pollen is best used as a fun, flashy garnish, one that may impart a bit of floral flavor or honey sweetness, but is chiefly there for “wow” factor.
Bee pollen is sold at specialty grocery stores, some local farmers markets, and online, and will usually set you back around $25 per pound. That’s not cheap—but, as Forbes explains to me, pollen is a relatively expensive protein because it takes a lot of effort to collect pollen (many beekeepers do it daily so that the pollen doesn’t go bad), but in harvesting the stuff, you’re essentially taking food from the hive. In fact, if your bee pollen doesn’t have a high price tag, examine it closely; make sure that it’s fresh and produced locally. Bee pollen is also highly perishable and should be stored in the freezer.
As with many so-called superfoods, the claims surrounding bee pollen range from possible to far-fetched. “There is no solid research in humans showing that bee pollen can treat allergies, prevent cancer, or enhance energy,” points out Clarke and Jarosh of C&J Nutrition. “However, it does have some healthy qualities, including antioxidants, specifically phenols, which may lower the risk of cancer and overall body inflammation.”
But hey, if you like the taste of it, definitely add some to your morning yogurt—or even sprinkle it on your cocktail! Just don’t go out of your way to consume it solely for health reasons.
Have you ever tried bee pollen, either straight from the jar or as a garnish? Tell us how you liked it in the comments.