QUESTION

After being plagued by one cold after another, on the advice of a friend I started taking bee pollen. Since then I've been fine, even though I work with a number of people who have colds. Could you explain how bee pollen works?

ANSWER - We're delighted that you've experienced fewer colds, but honesty compels us to tell you that it's a coincidence and not the result of the bee-pollen supplements.

Claims for the benefit of bee pollen have spanned everything from protection against allergies and cancer to improved sexual performance, all despite the fact that bee pollen has no known pharmacologic functions. Beyond that, individuals allergic to pollens from specific plants have experienced reactions of varying severity after taking pollen. In the extreme, undesirable side effects potentially can mean life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. That, coupled with the lack of demonstrated benefit is evidence enough for us that bee pollen is one of those remedies best left to gather dust on the health-food store shelf.

QUESTION - I try to keep our cholesterol in check, and have been following with interest reports about the effectiveness of oat bran. I understand that while there's some disagreement, most studies have found it is of some help. But has anyone studied whether instant oatmeal produces the same effect, or is it necessary to use oats that take longer to prepare?

ANSWER - In a study reported in the American Journal of Public Health, Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., and her co-workers at Northwestern University Medical School found that two ounces or two packets of instant oatmeal did lower serum cholesterol levels in a group of adults with elevated levels. Half the participants were given the oatmeal packets which they could use at any time during the day. So that they wouldn't gain weight, they were asked to substitute the cereal for the same amount of other carbohydrate foods they would normally eat.

Blood was drawn at the beginning of the study and again after four and eight weeks, and lipid profiles were compared to those of a control group. At the end of eight weeks both the average serum levels and the LDL-cholesterol levels (the type linked to heightened risk of heart attack) were significantly lower in the group that had taken the oatmeal. True, these individuals (but not those in the control group) did make other changes in their diets, too: cutting down on total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. But these changes only partly explained the improvement in their profiles. Apparently the inclusion of the oatmeal, along with the loss of a little weight, also contributed.

These findings do offer further evidence of the benefits of water-soluble fiber in reducing serum cholesterol. Remember to keep this in context, though. When it comes to lowering serum cholesterol, the regular use of oat products is no substitute for a diet low in total fat, especially saturated fat and cholesterol.

QUESTION - I have two questions about diet during pregnancy. One, are calcium supplements helpful in treating leg cramps? And two, is there any evidence that caffeine is harmful?

ANSWER - First, while leg cramps have been blamed on either a lack of calcium or problems with the way the body handles calcium, studies have failed to demonstrate a relationship between the two. In a study reported five years ago, women were given 2 grams of calcium a day, which is 800 milligrams above the amount recommended during pregnancy. But they fared no better than the group given the same amount of ascorbic acid as a placebo.

As for the safety of caffeine, studies haven't provided a clear picture. The good news is that available evidence doesn't link it to birth defects in humans. Some studies have shown reduced birth weight and increased risk of low birth weight, especially in babies born at term. However, it's not known whether these effects were due to caffeine or to other characteristics of coffee drinkers. And the findings have been by no means consistent. Also, the levels at which adverse effects have been reported span a considerable range, anywhere from 1 1-2 to 7 cups or more a day.

Based on then-current evidence, in 1980 the Food and Drug Administration recommended that pregnant women avoid all products containing caffeine. More recently, however, in its report on nutrition and pregnancy issued last year, the Subcommittee on Nutritional Status and Weight Gain During Pregnancy of the National Academy of Sciences took a more liberal stance. Acknowledging that it appears sensible to limit both coffee and caffeine during pregnancy, it concluded there is simply not enough evidence to make a specific recommendation.

1990, Washington Post Writers Group