Does the Hay Fever Honey Remedy Work? The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

A slight sniffle this morning reminded me that the hay fever season is wafting our way.
This brought to mind a lot of publicity I heard a year or so ago (probably at the beginning of the previous hay fever season) that honey was a good hay fever remedy.
The argument went that honey, being composed of pollen, contained pollen from the types of plant that caused the hay fever. Being in honey form it could be ingested (rather than inhaled) and thus the body could become desensitised to the pollen. A sort of inoculation I suppose.
The honey had to contain the same sort of pollen as was causing the hay fever, so it had to be either local honey or honey from a part of the world where similar pollen abounded. I seem to remember that there was a lot of advice in the press a few years ago stating that the best honey to use (here in Britain) was from Scandinavia, as there was a lot of hay fever around caused by birch pollen blown over the sea from that particular region of Europe.
It sounds vaguely plausible.
But there’s a problem.
Honey is composed of pollen from flowers of the showy, colourful, scented variety – the ones that are visited by bees (The flowers are showy, colourful and scented as a way of signalling their presence to the bees, not so that they look nice to us). This type of pollen does not cause hay fever, as it is never found floating around in the air and thus can’t be inhaled. It only ever leaves the plant when a bee takes it away. This pollen could only ever find its way up your nose if a bee were to crawl up there, heaven forbid.
The type of pollen that creates hay fever is the pollen that’s produced by plants that spread their pollen on the wind. These plants don’t have showy flowers, as they have no need to attract insects. Such plants include the grasses and quite a large number of trees on which the flowers come in the form of catkins (I’ve just been for a walk in the local park, and the oak trees are laden with such catkins, although at a cursory glance they can go totally unnoticed, being so unshowy).
Hay fever is very species-specific, with pollen from one type of plant causing a reaction in an individual person while that from a different species of plant has no effect whatsoever.
So, here’s the problem.
In what way can honey produced from blossoming flowers desensitise a person to wind-borne pollen from plants such as grasses and trees?
I suspect that it can’t, and that the whole theory falls into the category of the superficially plausible though ultimately implausible – the category that goes by the name of pseudoscience.
As soon as I heard of the claim that honey cured hay fever my scepticism antennae started twitching, and I actually wanted to find a flaw in the theory. This was because honey is a “halo food” – that is, a food that is thought of as being something of almost pure goodness and that has qualities verging on the mystical. I couldn’t help but be suspicious.
And herein lies a slight problem with my reaction to the claim. Out of all of the claims and ideas that jostled for my attention at the time, I deliberately homed in on this particular claim as being worthy of my thought (and hopefully, dismissal).
Where’s the problem with that?
It’s that people choose the things to think about that reinforce their own world view.
It’s not that it was wrong to think about (and to dismiss) the honey claim as such – it’s that perhaps I should have thought about something else a little more challenging instead.


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