Opinion » Antidote

The Royal Flush

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I ordered some royal jelly after hearing a commercial about the increase in energy you can get from eating bee products. They referred to it as the Perfect Food, saying it contains all the vitamins and enzymes a person needs. Now I'm told that vegans won't eat royal jelly because obtaining it is cruel to the bees. I'm not even a vegetarian, but I still don't want to take it if that's true. How do they get it from the bees?

I think the last time I believed in a perfect food, I was wearing diapers, my mother was the manufacturer, and I was easily distracted by shiny objects (well, more easily anyway). Now, so many supplements are referred to as the perfect food, my mom is getting a complex. Vitamin marketers, like politicians, have discovered that when a statement is repeated over and over, people will start to accept it as truth. For both groups, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted given that dropping your guard may lead you to believe, for example, Fox News is actually fair and balanced.

Royal jelly is a substance that can only be produced by specific worker bees referred to as nurses. It is a milky-white, gelatinous fluid produced in the "brood food glands" within the jaws of a nurse and fed directly to developing larvae. All bee larvae eat royal jelly for the first three or four days after hatching, but then, in Fox's American Idol fashion, a single one is ultimately selected to become the queen. This lucky bee is now fed royal jelly exclusively, while the losers must make due with a measly bowl of pollen and maybe a hooded sweatshirt from Old Navy. Royal jelly produces a hormonal and biochemical change that induces development of reproductive organs—a change that matures the selected bee into a queen. The queen eats nothing but royal jelly for her entire life, and can live eight to 10 times as long as the lowly worker bee.

It is doubtful that any natural account of a supplement that didn't include such a fairy-tale story could convince us to eat goo exuded from the mouthparts of an insect. Because of this seductive history, the reputation of royal jelly has included all manner of claims including improvement of athletic and sexual performance, protection from bacteria and viruses, delay of aging and (as no claim would be complete without it) decreased fatigue. This imaginative list is often backed up by nutritional analysis of royal jelly, which indeed includes a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, enzymes and hormones—understandable since a queen bee must survive on royal jelly alone. Left untold is that when eaten by a human, nearly all of those nutrients and enzymes are broken down to their component parts, just like any old bit of Salisbury steak.

Your question about cruelty in the manufacture of royal jelly is surprising, but perceptive. This time, in a manner similar to Joe Millionaire, the hive must be fooled into thinking that a new queen is needed. The ruse begins by placing dozens of larvae in special queen rearing chambers. Extra nurses are recruited to produce, and then fill each chamber with nutritive jelly. After a few days, the chambers are removed, the larvae plucked out and discarded, and the deception is repeated. According to beekeeping manuals, it can take up to 1,000 larvae to produce a single pound of royal jelly. This rare fluid is refrigerated or freeze-dried and sold for direct consumption or use in cosmetics.

The lesser concern to PETA members is allergy. Because the non-aristocratic bees collect and eat pollen as their food, royal jelly can be contaminated with grass pollen or other common allergens. Consumer caution is in order since the medical literature records numerous reactions—from itchy welts to anaphylactic shock—following ingestion of royal jelly or actual bee pollen. The same literature, funnily enough, does not record a single well-designed study demonstrating any human benefit from either intake or topical application of this expensive and potentially hazardous substance.

Charges of cruelty to insects aside, my best advice is to support bees by eating their honey, and take your cosmetic recommendations from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The origin of royal jelly is a fascinating story that glimpses the mysterious and hard-working life inside the hive. But if eating this stuff really could really make a person more like a queen, I expect there would be hundreds of better-dressed guys using the remote to click off Fox and turn on Bravo.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send your tiny nurse uniforms and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).