As someone whose spouse has a food allergy, I’ve learned to become more aware of what is in our food so that I don’t have to repeat any past emergencies, or rush my wife off to the hospital. And it is no secret that food allergies are on the rise, particularly in children, where there was an 18 percent increase between 1997 and 2007 (though, some may argue that awareness accounts for a significant percentage of this increase as opposed to prevalence.)
But, what about all of us allergy-free adults? We are home free, right? Well, if you are a meat lover and enjoy the outdoors, you need to pay attention.
Since 2008, doctors have noticed an increase in an allergy to meat – particularly mammalian meat such as pork, beef, and lamb – and the reactions can be severe. Victims can produce a hive-like rash, and in the more severe cases, anaphylactic shock.
While research is still in its infancy on the allergy known as alpha-gal, doctors have identified a strong correlation with tick bites – specifically the lone star tick – triggering the allergy in otherwise healthy adults. Researchers currently believe that something in the tick’s saliva triggers the immune system to develop antibodies to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, a sugar present in mammalian meats. The vast majority of cases are here in the southeast, though the allergy has cropped up as far away as Hawaii.
With most allergies, like my wife’s pine nut allergy, the reaction is immediate – she knows she has eaten pine nuts before she is done swallowing. But with alpha-gal, the typical onset is between 3-6 hours after ingestion, making it the only known food allergy in which there is a delayed anaphylactic reaction, and can make detection very difficult. Many people suffering from alpha-gal, particularly those with less severe reactions, had it for years before figuring out what was causing their outbreaks.
I first learned of this allergy a few years ago, after a family member came down with it. Frankly, I had trouble wrapping my head around it…this guy was an avid Big Green Egg enthusiast, and regularly turned out some mean pork butts and briskets at family gatherings. But after a few breakouts following a camping trip, he got the heart wrenching news that if he wanted to continue breathing, he had to swear off most of his favorite foods. While it is manageable by avoiding the offending meats, and some information indicates that the allergy may fade over time, it is at best a major inconvenience and at worst, deadly.
Currently, the number of confirmed cases is only in the thousands, so the disease remains rare and a tick bite doesn’t guarantee a reaction. But if you can’t see yourself going without a pulled pork sandwich for the rest of your life and you go out into the woods here in Georgia, please do yourself a favor and take precautions to prevent tick bites.
If you think you may have alpha-gal, make an appointment with your allergist. A test is available from the ViracorIBT that can identify the antibody responsible. Also, you can find some good information here and here.
- By Jon Watson, Food & More blog