Japan Runs on Royal Jelly

Royal jelly energy drinks, royal jelly hair mousse, royal jelly nutritional capsules, royal jelly facial treatments, royal jelly massage cream, royal jelly smoothie powder; if America runs on Dunkin’, Japan runs on jelly. Royal jelly, that is.

While the Chinese are actually the greatest producers and consumers of royal jelly, perhaps it’s the Japanese who have produced some of the most interesting and expensive royal jelly items currently on the market.

In part, this is due to the recognized value of bee products in traditional Chinese medicine,  a source of knowledge that’s entered the Japanese product market.

It’s also due to the prevalence of research put forth by Japanese scientists who have, over the course of many years, released some of the most relevant data on the benefits of royal jelly consumption known to humanity. Included in this research are the discoveries that regular royal jelly ingestion is positively linked with cholesterol control, breast cancer prevention, osteoporosis and bone loss prevention, diabetes and blood sugar control, skin healing, inflammation reduction, liver protection, brain function enhancement, immune modulation, and antioxidant boosting, just to name a few of its benefits.

But it’s also due to the fact that the Japanese beauty market tends to pander to the Fountain of Youth-imbibing crowd. If Japanese scientists have done anything to espouse the value of royal jelly, then those Japanese consumers thirsty for the next trendy rejuvenatory elixir have thoroughly taken that message to heart.

The extent of this royal jelly fanaticism in Japan begs the question, is royal jelly just another item on a long list of fabled youth potions for the public or is it something more?

As an American grad student living in Tokyo, I set out to get an answer to this very question.

Regularly encountering Japanese royal jelly products at my local drugstore, I faced a diversity of product choices as complicated to me as a bee colony’s workings.

Right next to the aisles where I stocked up on contact lens solution and toothbrushes were a multitude of health and beauty products: some containing rice, some containing ginseng, some containing green tea, and some containing royal jelly. I could consume plain old royal jelly supplements. I could smear royal jelly derivatives on my face. I could marinate my hair in royal jelly cream. I could sip on a royal jelly energy drink while riding the subway. I could probably do all of those things at the same time if I wanted to, and some Tokyo train commuters wouldn’t even bat an eye over it.

So the first thing to ask in this most regal decision-making process was what the heck is royal jelly?

Royal jelly is a milky substance produced in the glands of nurse bees that are fed to all bee larvae their first three days of life and subsequently, fed only to queen bees for the rest of what could be a six-year-long life. Daily, a queen bee will lay about 2.5 times her own weight in eggs. For this, she’ll need to be large, fertile, and sturdy. And her ovaries will need to be in full fat working order.

What’s actually in royal jelly?

The make-up of royal jelly is about 67% water, 12.5% crude protein, 11% simple sugars and 5% fatty acid. In that acid, a high level of Vitamin B is found, along with other trace minerals and enzymes believed to hold beneficial health properties.

How does one decide what’s a sufficient amount of royal jelly in a product?

While it’s difficult to say, most royal jelly is sold as capsules containing between 500 mg to 1000 mg. In masks, hair creams, or face lotions, royal jelly will normally constitute a small percentage of the entire make-up of the beauty product. Rarely if ever will you see a product that’s even near fully royal jelly in its constitution.

Back at the Japanese drugstore, I grabbed at the product bottles with the prettiest honeycomb designs on their packaging, giving extra points for images of actual bees on product labels. For the honeycomb images: the golder, the better. For the bee images: the more realistic, the better. After painfully watching my cash register total shoot upwards, I set out for home with my expensive new wares in tow. I smeared that royal jelly derivative on my face and marinated my hair in that rich royal jelly cream. Upon waking the next morning, I found my skin taut and my hair smooth.  

That same day, I’d try a royal jelly-infused drink at a Japanese convenience store. I found that it energized me and made me feel good.

Continuing on my royal jelly bender, later that year, I’d end up at Honeyworld on Australia’s Gold Coast with beekeepers who explained the honey, royal jelly, and propolis-producing processes to me. These beekeepers took great pride in their work, were protective of the bees they cared for, and were respectful of the extremely important role bees play in the maintaining and flourishing of the entire global ecosystem. I’d soon after start taking royal jelly supplements from their Superbee Honeyworld farm. I felt no noticeable difference in my body specifically from these supplements, but as I took them along with my fruit smoothies, it was hard to know what was responsible for making me feel refreshed: the fruit, the royal jelly, or both.

The truth is the jury may always be out on whether royal jelly does anything noticeably good for humans. I may always wonder about royal jelly’s efficacy for myself and others. And I may never get a clear-cut answer.

And though it may seem that I’m now a full-fledged member of the royal jelly rage team, ultimately I chose not to be. Because in this crazy process to get to the bottom of royal jelly, I decided to be on Team Bee.

The very drive in human beings to find ourselves the magic potions promising youth, fame, money, success, and all of the other vices we’re known to struggle with, has also pushed us to degrade our environment to levels never before seen in history. Climate change, current levels of environmental toxicity and pollution could make it so that there’s no point to consuming royal jelly, whether it’s labeled with the goldest of golden honeycombs, the most realistic of realistic bee drawings, a product of the finest, most honest and awesome Australian beekeepers in all the land. Environmental degradation’s effects spread beyond royal jelly into our entire biological landscape. The very bees that make royal jelly are threatened; they’re diseased and declining. And this is in large part due to the destruction that happens when humans get greedy.

While we suck Earth dry of all the things that we think make us sexier, smarter, faster, and better, the bees just keep doin’ their thing.

Maybe it’s more important for us to take care of the bees now, as they’ve been taking care of us for so long.

In the words of Maryam Henein, director of the documentary Vanishing of the Bees, “Bees are intelligent and magical beyond our comprehension and know how to protect themselves and even try to detoxify when they’ve been poisoned. What we need are less chemicals in the environment that are compromising their innate ability to fight off disease.”

Human beings can be intelligent and magical too. We just have to prove ourselves on this one.