How would you describe a flavor?
Any description is usually brought into the realm of reality by comparison (e.g. “it tastes like …,” “the band sounds like … ”). There’s an unspoken understanding that in order to describe something new, we must relate it to something ubiquitous. Everyone knows this.And yet I have no idea how to describe the flavor of bee pollen.
Bee pollen has recently exploded in popularity, thanks in part to celebrities, who’ve touted its supposed health benefits. Lately it’s been popping up dusted over breakfast bowls, whirled into smoothies, or incorporated into salads. But what does it taste like?I could tell you it sort of tastes like honey, but that isn’t true. When I first opened the jar, given to me by Chicago Honey Co-op director Michael Thompson, I thought, “Smells like artichoke hearts.”
Truly, all I kept thinking was it tastes like the earth. What Is Bee Pollen?Fresh bee pollen, a muted rainbow of soft, tender granules brushed from the legs of the bees that carried them, is hard to come by. It has a short shelf life (and must be refrigerated), and it’s collected in small quantities by beekeepers from little screens below the hive. Nearly all bee pollen sold on the commercial market is dehydrated—but, like anything edible, the fresher it is, the better. What you buy on the Internet likely won’t have the same benefits as the fresh stuff. These soft, varied little pebbles of fresh bee pollen are created by the “forager” honeybees
while they’re out pollinating plants and collecting nectar to make honey. Mixed with the nectar, the pollen granules are transformed into a soft little nugget that the bee carries back to the hive on its legs (on a cute little thing called a pollen basket!). At the hive, the pollen is stuffed into the combs and eventually becomes vital food for larvae—a process that is essential to the survival of the hive.
So … What Does Bee Pollen (Supposedly) Do?The list of claims related to the health benefits of bee pollen is long and hyperbolic and includes the following: increased athletic performance, weight loss, treatment of addiction, and even reversal of infertility. Because the pollen is rich in complex proteins, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients, it’s gained traction among health nuts as a coveted “superfood.” Buzzword-obsessed foodies everywhere rejoiced when they discovered there’s something else we can steal from bees. (Royal jelly! Honey! The comb!)That Sounds Great. When Do We Eat?
While it’s true that bee pollen is packed with nutrients—indeed, it’s been called, “one of nature's most completely nourishing foods”—there’s a catch.
One serving of bee pollen, despite containing millions of flower pollen granules, only contains about 2 grams of protein, max. The average adult recommendation for daily protein intake is roughly 45–55 grams, meaning bee pollen won’t contribute a significant amount of protein to a person’s diet. Not even close.
As for those other claims, the ones linking bee pollen to increased energy, relief from allergies and, um, fertility? Despite years of research, scientists have been unable to produce conclusive evidence either way. Here’s my (now-overly-educated-on-bee-pollen) advice: if you’re going to eat bee pollen, you should probably just do it for that indescribable flavor.
Still, many people who consume bee pollen are pretty sure it does … something. Thompson, who eats bee pollen himself, had a hard time putting his finger on the exact effects. He said he felt stronger and that it boosted his appetite. He collects pollen straight from the hive and eats it fresh—and he also knows where it comes from, ensuring it isn’t laced with potentially harmful pesticides.
Which brings up another important question …
Is Eating Bee Pollen Dangerous?Zero scientific evidence exists as to the efficacy or potentially dangerous side effects of eating bee pollen. However, those with severe seasonal allergies or allergies to bees are cautioned against trying it—or at least starting out very, very slow.But Jana Kinsman, director and proprietor of Bike a Bee, warned consumers of another risk: the potential of depleting the bee populations by consuming and buying bee pollen. “It takes away a lot of crucial nutrients for the bees,” she said. “I don’t generally like to [collect pollen] because [the bees] need pollen in order to raise young.”
To be fair, both beekeepers I spoke to are passionate about bees and extremely concerned with their well-being. Their excitement about bees is infectious. Thompson assured me that the only time they would take any pollen from the hive is during mid-summer, when the bees over-produce and are flush with resources. This is also when the beekeepers are most likely to collect honey.
This summer, Kinsman and Thompson will be around Chicago’s farmers’ markets, selling honey (and sometimes the coveted fresh pollen) and raising awareness about the importance of supporting local beekeepers.
And as for the flavor? Thompson told me the following: “It tastes very rich to me, sort of like … how an egg yolk would make a drink taste rich.”
See what he did there?
Bee-pollen photos by Russ Augustine, Groupon. Bee and comb photos courtesy of Jana Kinsman.Take a look at other unusual foods with these articles:Is Powdered Peanut Butter the New Peanut Butter?Find out how it matches up in smoothies, desserts, classics, and savory dishes.Eight Foods That Could Put You in Jail
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