Go Ad-Free
logoThe People's Perspective on Medicine

Alpha-Gal Syndrome Creates Carrageenan Crisis

Tick or chigger bites can trigger an allergy to meat called alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). A food additive, carrageenan, can also pose problems.

We have been talking about tick bite meat allergy for at least a decade. That’s when we started interviewing Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills. This University of Virginia researcher has been described by his colleagues as “a living legend” and “the most insightful clinical investigator of allergic diseases of his generation” (UVA Today, Feb. 8, 2019). Dr. Platts-Mills told us how a tick bite could trigger a serious allergic reaction to red meat (alpha-gal syndrome). We have just learned that this alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) goes beyond red meat. Foods with the additive carrageenan may also cause a bad reaction.

What is Alpha-Gal Syndrome (AGS)?

Before we tell you about carrageenan in foods we want to lay the groundwork. Many people, including some health professionals, have never heard about this growing problem. Here is a story from one of our readers:

Q. I have what is now being called alpha-gal syndrome.  It has put me in the emergency room on several occasions. The last time my blood pressure was dropping rapidly, and the ER staff administered an EpiPen. It was a jolt, but it brought me back.

My primary care physician thinks this is all a bunch of hokum.

A. Some doctors have been skeptical about alpha-gal allergy because it is unlike typical food allergies. A bite from a lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) sensitizes the individual to a compound found in meat known as alpha gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose).

Symptoms of an AGS:

A person with alpha-gal syndrome can experience a delayed reaction reaction hours after eating pork, beef, lamb, bison, venison or any other mammalian meat. Fish and poultry are not mammals, so no worries there.

Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome may include skin rash, itching, hives, digestive distress (nausea, indigestion, stomach pain, diarrhea), breathing problems and/or shortness of breath, dizziness and low blood pressure. AGS is a medical emergency requires immediate care by experienced health professionals.

Because several hours can pass between exposure and symptoms and because symptoms can be so variable, the diagnosis is challenging for health professionals. Keep in mind that AGS is unlike most other food allergies. Another unusual aspect of alpha-gal syndrome is that it does not happen on every exposure.

Carol explains the challenge of having alpha-gal syndrome:

“I’ve had this allergy for 15 years, diagnosed for 8 years and continue to be diligent about any non-vegan product (food or medication) I eat, use or am medically treated with. Fortunately, my reaction to alpha gal indigestion is less severe than many. I usually don’t react to exposure to minimal amounts of dairy. Pork and gelatin for some reason cause severe reactions.

“I’m completely baffled that my medical practitioners are still uninformed about alpha gal. None are partners with me in overseeing possible effects of medications that contain mammalian meat products. My biggest fear is needing medical treatment while unconscious and therefore unable to ask if medication or products used to treat me are safe.”

Beware Carageenan in Food:

Another reader describes alpha-gal syndrome and warns us about carrageenan:

“Because I’ve benefited greatly from listening to the People’s Pharmacy (PP) and reading the Graedons’ books, I’d like to return the favor by sharing my experience with some of the issues previously addressed on PP.

“I was bitten by some insects while I was working on my porch in the fall of 2019 and developed alpha-galactose syndrome (AGS) as a result. It took almost 2 months to figure out why a third of my body was covered with a very itchy rash and what I needed to do to remedy the situation. After that, I was mostly okay as long as I ate properly. 

“AGS is an allergy to red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb, venison) and other products that are mostly derived from non-primate mammals (e.g., butter, milk, gelatin, collagen) and to additives such as carrageenan.

“The condition typically begins with a tick bite. Ticks carry alpha-galactose molecules from the blood of the animals they have previously bitten, such as cows, deer or field mice. When the tick bites a human, it injects the alpha-galactose in its saliva into the person’s body.

“In some people, the injected saliva triggers an immune system response that later produces mild to severe allergic reactions after ingesting red meat or carrageenan (derived from seaweed). Signs and symptoms of AGS can include the following:

• hives,
• swelling of the lips, face, tongue or throat
• wheezing
• stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting
• headaches or anaphylaxis

“The best course of action is prevention by avoiding red meat and other suspect items. AGS can occur in response to carrageenan used as a food additive, intravenous administration of gelatin-based plasma volume expanders and some vaccines.

“I have had a couple of mild AGS flareups despite eating what I considered to be a clean diet. I traced these reactions to eating some vegan hot dogs that contained collagen in the casings and to carrageenan added to the basting sauce for rotisserie chicken. (I usually can eat poultry and fish without incident.)

“My curiosity spurred research about the adverse effects of carrageenan because it’s derived from a plant and therefore the odd one out in a long list of mammalian products that can prompt an AGS reaction.

Carrageenan is Everywhere!

“Carrageenan is used as an additive to thicken, emulsify and preserve foods and drinks. It is extracted from edible red seaweeds.

“People should read labels carefully to avoid carrageenan. Manufacturers use it in vegan and vegetarian products to replace gelatin, which is made from animal parts.

“Common sources of carrageenan include many brands of deli meats, soy milk, buttermilk, cottage cheese, cream, ice cream, yogurt, canned soups and broths, microwavable dinners, infant formulas, and some dairy alternatives such as vegan cheeses, almond milk, nondairy creamers and nondairy desserts.

“Finding vegetarian or vegan foods without carrageenan is possible. Although it adds no nutritional value or flavor, carrageenan’s chemical structure makes it useful as a binder, thickening agent, and stabilizer in a wide variety of foods and health care products such as toothpastes. cough medicines, and bulk laxatives.

“Carrageenan is legally required to be listed among a product’s ingredients. Although the FDA still approves this ingredient, the National Organic Standards Board voted to remove carrageenan from their approved list in 2016. This means that foods made with carrageenan can no longer be labeled “USDA organic.” Choosing certified organic products and reading ingredient labels can ensure that the additive isn’t in the foods and products you buy.”

We were surprised to learn that that the common food additive carrageenan can trigger a reaction in people with AGS (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dec. 2015). 

Learn More About Alpha-Gal Syndrome:

Have you ever been bitten by a tick? Who hasn’t? Could you have alpha-gal syndrome? There is now a blood test that can be performed to determine if someone has AGS. Allergists can also perform an allergy skin test. 

In this podcast you will learn about tick-borne diseases, including AGS. It is show 1003. An even more up-to-date show exclusively on AGS is with Dr. Scott Commins. He is a colleague of Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills. Here is a link to Show 1167

Show 1167: Will a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Meat?

Many people have had a tick bite and are now allergic to red meat. The culprit is the lone star tick that triggers an alpha-gal allergy. How does that work?

You may also find this article of interest:

Why Is Alpha-Gal Allergy So Misunderstood and Misdiagnosed?

Imagine experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction after eating a burger or barbecue. A marshmallow can also trigger an attack of alpha-gal allergy. Many doctors don’t recognize it.

If you have experienced alpha-gal syndrome as a result of a tick or chigger bite, please share your experience in the comment section below. 

Rate this article
4.4- 56 ratings
About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
Tired of the ads on our website?

Now you can browse our website completely ad-free for just $5 / month. Stay up to date on breaking health news and support our work without the distraction of advertisements.

Browse our website ad-free
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.