Something about eating bee pollen seems, I don't know, bad? Most people with allergies tend to avoid pollen like the plague, not sprinkle it on top of smoothies and salads and eat it intentionally. But nevertheless, bee pollen is all over health food stores, and some people (including Gwyneth Paltrow, of course) swear by it.
For starters, bee pollen is different from the pollen you'd find on a plant. Honeybees make it by picking up pollen from plants and carrying it around on their legs until it forms a seed-shaped grain, called a "pollen load." People eat these tangy, crunchy grains, because pollen is thought to contain helpful vitamins, nutrients, and compounds that have anti-oxidant properties. Bee pollen is easy to add to most foods, and it doesn't really have a taste, so it makes sense why it's popular with people trying to eat healthier.
As far as the nutritional benefits go, bee pollen seems to contain some vitamins (like B vitamins and folic acid), and macronutrients like protein and fat, but in very small quantities, says Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "To really get these in any meaningful quantity, you'd have to consume a lot of bee pollen," she says. Plus, most of the studies on bee pollen are small or done on rodents, so it's tough to say how bee pollen would affect humans, she says. "That doesn't mean bee pollen doesn't have great qualities, it's just that there isn't a whole lot of proof," she says.
Another reason why people are drawn to eating bee pollen? It's supposed to help with allergies. The belief is that consuming a small dose of local honey containing bee pollen can stimulate the immune system and reduce allergies, explains Miguel Wolbert, MD, a board-certified allergist in Midland, TX. But it's more complicated than that: Pollen that causes allergies, like ragweed or oak tree, tend to be wind-borne, Dr. Wolbert says. "Wind-borne pollens can fall onto flowers, get picked up by bees, and end up in honey, but it’s likely to be a very, very small amount, and not enough to make a difference," he says. And so far, there's no clinical evidence to show that honey can alleviate allergy symptoms, he says.
If the thought of eating a bee's collection of pollen still freaks you out, that's understandable. The good news is that there don't seem to be any serious drawbacks to eating bee pollen, although there have been cases of people with a history of bee allergies having allergic reactions to honey and pollen, Dr. Wolbert says. "It is very rare, but not impossible," he says. "I would recommend caution from eating honey if one has a sensitivity to bee stings." And if you're pregnant, then it's important to talk to your doctor before taking it, because there's a chance the pollen could "stimulate the uterus," according to MedlinePlus.
TL;DR If you want to experiment putting bee pollen in your smoothies or salads because you like the taste and texture, and you're not allergic to bees, go for it. But if you're looking for antioxidant or nutrient-rich foods to add to your diet, then you might be better off eating some of the better-studied functional foods that we know have those qualities, Davis says.