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Essential Science: Renewed health risks around red meat

It is established that specific allergens trigger an immunological response which is connected with plaque build-up and hence arterial blockages. Furthermore, there is a connection between immune response and inflammation in the heart, which leads to lasting damage, and levels of damage which become worse over time.

New research shows that certain biomarkers for a red meat allergy are linked with these higher levels of arterial plaque. The biomarker is a class of antibody which is released in response to the main allergen in red meat. This is galactose-a-1, 3-galactose (a type of sugar), also referred to as alpha gal.

File photo: Scientist working in a laboratory

File photo: Scientist working in a laboratory
CDC Photo Credit: James Gathany

The new research was based on a study whereby researchers reviewed blood samples taken from 118 adults. The analysis showed antibodies to the biomarker in 26 percent of the samples, which suggests sensitivity to red meat.

Data was collected as the study subjects underwent an intravascular ultrasound process, which enable images to be generated of their arteries. With those subjects shown to possess red meat sensitivity, the data indicated a 30 percent higher quantity of arterial plaque. These plaques were also found to be structurally unstable. The consequence of the structural instability is that such people will carry a higher risk of myocardial incident or stroke.

The researchers are of the view that the allergens influence the heart through inflammation. Over time this risk triggers pathogenesis of coronary artery disease. This is something that becomes an increased risk with those over 65 years old. In terms of how many people in the population have such an insensitivity to red meat, Laboratory Roots reports that for the U.S. population this is around 1 percent, with the proportion of asymptomatic people as high as 20 percent of the population.

File photo: Cow farming

File photo: Cow farming
Chelsea Nesvig (CC BY 2.0)

Such proportions are alarming in terms of the sub-population at risk. In terms of how such a sensitivity develops, one of the causative factors could be a tick bite. Specifically, a bite from the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) can cause people to develop an allergy to red meat, including beef and pork. This type of tick is more common in the south-eastern U.S. and it is so-named named for a silvery-white, star-shaped spot or “lone star” present near the center of the posterior portion of the adult female shield.

The tick Amblyomma americanum (Lone Star tick)

The tick Amblyomma americanum (Lone Star tick)
CDC Photo Credit: James Gathany

The findings affirm the risks associated with the high consumption of the high saturated fats found in red meat in relation to heart disease. Eating a lot of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood, and having high cholesterol raises your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are chemically defined as fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.

In terms of how much red meat consumption is classed a ‘high consumption’, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces (cooked weight) of red meats such as beef, lamb, and pork over the course of one week.

One of the party tucking into steak and chips at The Bull  Wheathampstead.

One of the party tucking into steak and chips at The Bull, Wheathampstead.

With the new study, further research will be required to assess the preliminary findings, such as a cross-comparison of imaging results for people who do not have the allergies. Currently, there is no treatment for red meat sensitivity.

According to lead researcher Dr. Coleen McNamara: “This novel finding from a small group of subjects from Virginia raises the intriguing possibility that allergy to red meat may be an underrecognized factor in heart disease. These preliminary findings underscore the need for further clinical studies in larger populations from diverse geographic regions and additional laboratory work.

The research has been published in the journal of the American Heart Association. The research paper is titled “IgE to the Mammalian Oligosaccharide Galactose-α-1,3-Galactose Is Associated With Increased Atheroma Volume and Plaques With Unstable Characteristics—Brief Report.”

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we saw how scientists have demonstrated how artificial intelligence can aid the automatic monitoring of single molecules in cells.

The week before we reviewed new studies that considered into how playing video games can affect the brain indicated that regular gaming can trigger changes across several brain regions, boosting efficiency but also fueling addiction.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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