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Meat allergy and intolerance

Meat allergy and intolerance

Red meats like beef and lamb contribute to a large proportion of carnivorous diets. When consumed in moderation, these meats can supply a rich source of protein and other nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. However, some people cannot tolerate eating red meats well. If you find that you feel ill or have an upset stomach after eating these meats, read on. Together we’ll explore the differences between a meat allergy and intolerance, how they might affect you, and what testing you can do to determine if you have an allergy or red meat intolerance.

Meat allergy

Up to 2% of adults and 8% of children in the UK have a food allergy. This equates to a total of about 2 million people. Of these allergies, red meat is not a common allergy. However, it is becoming increasingly common due to a recently discovered tick-borne reaction.

Some people have been found to develop an allergy to red meats after having a tick bite. This happens because the ticks release a chemical called alpha-gal while biting a person’s body. The alpha-gal triggers the immune system, which produces immune cells called antibodies. The antibodies are created to recognise and fight off the alpha-gal any time the person is exposed to alpha-gal in the future.

Unfortunately, alpha-gal is found in most meats – including beef, lamb and pork – and it is also in poultry if the poultry is injected with flavouring from other mammals. Because the body’s immune system is primed to react to alpha-gal, anyone with this ‘alpha-gal syndrome’will have an allergic reaction to eating meats. The syndrome is also known as ‘mammalian meat allergy’(MMA).

The first tick initially found to cause this reaction is called the Lone Star tick, located in the USA. However, other ticks throughout Europe, Australia, Asia, and South Africa, have also been found to release alpha-gal and cause this syndrome.

Not all red meat allergies are caused by a tick bite. Sometimes they are like other allergies that can develop from an overreactive immune response to a perceived threat. Some research is also being conducted to determine if other insect bites or parasites could cause allergies to red meats as well.

Symptoms of meat allergy

The symptoms of meat allergy can vary from mild discomfort to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction involving difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue or throat, dizziness, fainting, and loss of consciousness.

Unlike other food allergies, the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome take longer to appear. They are generally delayed by three to ten hours after eating meat.

Symptoms of a mild to moderate allergic reaction can include:

  • headaches
  • runny nose after eating meat
  • sneezing
  • coughing
  • nasal congestion
  • itchy, red or watery eyes
  • skin rashes, welts or itchy skin (e.g.hives or eczema)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • tummy pain
  • diarrhoea
  • asthma (e.g. wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath)

Foods and products you can react to

If you have a red meat allergy or alpha-gal syndrome, you may react to the meats and milk, gelatine, and other goods made from animal by-products. This includes:

Meats:

  • lamb / mutton / hogget
  • pork / bacon / ham
  • beef / veal / bull
  • ox
  • buffalo
  • goat
  • venison / deer
  • rabbit
  • kangaroo or other marsupials

Foods containing dairy or meat-derived products:

  • sausages (including chicken as casings can be made from beef collagen)
  • deli and cold meats, e.g. salami
  • offal, e.g. tripe, liver, kidneys, brain
  • gelatine products, e.g. mousse, jelly, jams, lollies (e.g. jellies), marshmallows
  • collagen and collagen protein powder
  • bone broths, e.g. beef bone broth
  • meat extracts, e.g. lard, meat fats
  • gravy
  • soups, soup powders, stocks (stock cubes and liquids)
  • ‘flavoured’ snacks, e.g. chips
  • energy drinks containing taurine
  • dairy, e.g. milks, yoghurt, butter, margarine, cheese, chocolate, cream, ice-cream, protein powders, rennet

Goods containing animal by-products:

  • Some vitamins, medications, vaccines, and ‘over the counter treatments, e.g. pancreatic enzymes, anticoagulant (heparin), anti-cancer therapy (cetuximab)
  • Some cosmetics, shampoos, moisturisers, lotions, and band-aids

Meat intolerance

Intolerance to red meat can occur when your body doesn’t have the stomach acid and enzymes needed to digest meat properly. When this happens, the meat fibres don’t completely break down, and the undigested meat travels through the gut causing digestive symptoms.

An intolerance to meat may also be caused by a sensitivity to the chemicals in meat. This includes:

  • Amines

Amines, like histamine, are chemicals in aged meats. These increase the more meat is cured and preserved. An excess of amines can cause symptoms in sensitive individuals. The symptoms include headaches, migraines, skin redness and rashes, anxiety, stomach aches, diarrhoea, allergy-like symptoms (like sneezing and nasal congestion), and low blood pressure.

  • Sulphur

Sulphur is naturally present in meats and is also used as a preservative in the form of sulphites. People sensitive to sulphites can experience skin rashes (hives), redness and flushing, diarrhoea, nasal congestion, wheezing, coughing, and low blood pressure. Sulphite sensitivity is common in people with asthma, and in severe cases, can cause life-threatening airway constriction.

  • Nitrates and nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are chemical preservatives used in processed and cured meats (e.g. bacon, ham, salami). Individuals who are sensitive to nitrates or nitrites may experience skin rashes (hives) or headaches. There have also been reports of people having allergic and anaphylactic reactions to these chemicals.

Symptoms of meat intolerance

An intolerance to red meats can cause symptoms such as:

  • indigestion
  • heartburn or reflux
  • bad breath
  • stomach aches
  • nausea (and vomiting, rarely)
  • bloating
  • gas
  • abdominal cramping
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • unexplained fatigue (especially shortly after eating meat)

How to test for meat allergy and intolerance

To test for a meat allergy or alpha-gal syndrome, your doctor may perform a range of tests (like blood tests) or refer you to an allergy specialist for further testing (like a skin prick test for allergies).

Food intolerance testing is different to allergy testing. Our lab offers an intolerance test that looks at 350 foods, as well as 350 non-food items. To do the test, simply order the test online HERE, and send your hair sample to our lab. We will send you the comprehensive results within three days of receiving your sample.

Summary

Today we looked at red meat allergy and meat intolerance. We discovered that you could develop an allergy to meats and animal-derived products after having a tick bite. This reaction is known as alpha-gal syndrome or mammalian meat allergy. We learnt that the symptoms of this allergy are more delayed than other allergies, and they can take up to three to ten hours to occur. Knowing this, we looked at the foods and products that could trigger this reaction. We then explored what causes meat intolerance and learnt that it could result from poor digestion of meats or a sensitivity to the chemicals found in meat. Lastly, we learnt about how you can test for a meat allergyand that you can test for meat intolerance through our test available online HERE.

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