Two years ago, 48-year-old Ralph Williams felt 106 years old. The retired truck driver said he was "run down all the time." Today, he said, "I have so much energy I feel like I'm 20 years old."

Walt Reibel had suffered leg cramps and ulcers for more than 20 years. Sometimes the ulcers took six to eight months to heal. Today, he said, the leg cramps were gone and the ulcers heal in two months. Reibel also said he had lost 20 pounds.Both credit bee pollen for renewed energy, fast healing, weight loss and good nutrition.

Pat Hermann is on her feet for hours every day as proprietor of the Funny Farm Feed Folks grain store in Evansville, Ind. For years she had so little energy she'd head for bed after supper.

Today, she's "pollen-powered" - with energy to spare. She sells bee pollen at her store.

Williams started eating pollen just to prove Hermann wrong.

"But I soon found out that she was right. I don't take any medicine any more, and I feel great."

These Evansville residents are among thousands of believers in the power of bee pollen. They said it's nature's most perfect food. They claimed it gave them increased vitality, greater disease resistance and complete nutrition.

But critics of bee pollen said there was no scientific evidence that it offered better nutrition than a balanced diet or other diet supplements.

"I don't know that it has any therapeutic benefit at all," said Dr. Stephen Cohen, an allergist in Milwaukee. He studied bee pollen after three of his patients suffered acute reactions after eating the pollen in granular form.

"One guy nearly died," Cohen said.

He had the pollen analyzed and discovered the bees collected it from ragweed. The patient who nearly died was extremely allergic to ragweed, he said.

Parade magazine reported last year that President Reagan had eaten bee pollen since 1961. He keeps a supply on hand both in the White House and aboard Air Force One.

Other published reports said professional coaches pushed bee pollen for their athletes.

Bee pollen costs from $6.99 to $13.95 for a three-month supply.

"It's not expensive for what it does," Williams said. "I couldn't buy vitamins for the price we pay for bee pollen."

Jim Devlin, a former Roman Catholic priest who founded Mr. Bee Pollen Co., said he was "dying" nine years ago before he started eating bee pollen.

"I was sleeping 17 or 18 hours a day, my blood pressure was high, I was losing my hair and my interest in the world."

A chance encounter with a beekeeper selling honey at a flea market "changed my life," Devlin said. After eating honey and pollen, Devlin was surprised at the abrupt "energy revolution" he experienced.

Devlin said analyses of pure bee pollen showed it contained all the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients the body needs.

"It's total nutrition," Devlin said. Nutrients in the body work as a team, but if some of the necessary nutrients are missing, the body can malfunction, he said. Using bee pollen ensured that won't happen, he said.

But critics like Cohen and William Jarvis, a professor at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, Calif., said promoters of bee pollen glossed over its dangers.

The granular form is more likely to cause reactions than the tablet form, which must interact with stomach acids before it is absorbed, Cohen said.

Granules also could get stuck in the gums or on the lips, and they could harm people who were allergic to plants the pollen was collected from, he said.

Jarvis, a professor of health education, said bees are indiscriminate when they gather pollen.

"You can't be absolutely sure from what plant the pollen is being taken. It could be something poisonous."

Bee pollen gathered from some plants, such as ragweed, could send some people into allergic shock, he said.

"I would say from a benefit/risk standpoint, the benefits are unproven, and the risk is there."

Cohen said none of the claims by bee pollen proponents have held up in scientific tests, where bee-pollen capsules were compared to placebos.

Researchers also have conducted studies to determine whether athletes performed better after eating bee pollen, and they have found no apparent benefits, Jarvis said.

He said bee products have been touted as a panacea for ailments and problems for centuries. Honey was supposed to be better than sugar, bee venom had been sold as a remedy for arthritis, and honeycomb was supposed to be a good laxative, he said.

"Some of these uses can be dangerous."

Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist in Allentown, Pa., and a volunteer member of the board of the National Council Against Health Fraud, said claims by proponents that bee pollen offered natural weight control were "absolutely false. There's nothing in bee pollen that could help control weight."

That statement and another that said pollen offered greater resistance to disease could be construed as "therapeutic claims," Barrett said. "That would make the product a drug under U.S. food and drug regulations."

The federal Food and Drug Administration regards bee pollen as a dietary supplement, so it does not have to meet the standards required of drugs.

"Federal agencies don't take action when confronted with relatively bland sort of claims like these," he said. "But bee pollen sellers promote a lot of ideas that are unproven and unscientific."

Devlin said pollen cures only one thing - hunger.

"It's total nutrition. It's food. It's not a drug." He advised those who eat bee pollen to begin with small amounts and gradually increase the dose. That should prevent any allergic reactions, he said.

Devlin claimed medical doctors and drug companies refused to recognize the benefits of bee pollen because "it's bad for business. It's a natural food. No prescription has to be written. And that touches the fiber of 50 percent of America's gold bags. That's why they're not interested in natural foods."

By contrast, European and Far Eastern countries have embraced the benefits of bee pollen for centuries, he said.

"In China, there are more than 50 million bee colonies feeding 4 billion Chinese."

Devlin believed those who eat cooked and processed food were robbed of many nutrients.

"There are 23,000 chemical additives, and much of our food is derived from coal and petroleum. And yet it's a felony for me to claim bee pollen can do certain things. That's the law. It's pathetic."

But Dr. Steve Taylor, director of the food processing center at the University of Nebraska, said: "Most of us eat so many nutrients that the percentage we destroy in cooking and processing are of no consequence. Many foods are supplemented with vitamins and minerals, too."

"Our hope is that someday the benefits of bee pollen will be scientifically verified," Devlin said. "But until then, the ultimate judgment of the value of pollen rests with the ordinary people who find it beneficial."