Do dietary lectins cause disease?BMJ 1999; 318 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7190.1023 (Published 17 April 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1023
The evidence is suggestive—and raises interesting possibilities for treatment
- David L J Freed, Allergist
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In 1988 a hospital launched a “healthy eating day” in its staff canteen at lunchtime. One dish contained red kidney beans, and 31 portions were served. At 3 pm one of the customers, a surgical registrar, vomited in theatre. Over the next four hours 10 more customers suffered profuse vomiting, some with diarrhoea. All had recovered by next day. No pathogens were isolated from the food, but the beans contained an abnormally high concentration of the lectin phytohaemagglutinin.1 Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins present in most plants, especially seeds and tubers like cereals, potatoes, and beans. Until recently their main use was as histology and blood transfusion reagents, but in the past two decades we have realised that many lectins are (a) toxic, inflammatory, or both; (b) resistant to cooking and digestive enzymes; and (c) present in much of our food.2 It is thus no surprise that they sometimes cause “food poisoning.” But the really disturbing finding came with the discovery in 1989 that some food lectins get past the gut wall and deposit themselves in distant organs. 3 4 So do they cause real life diseases?
This is no academic question because diet is one part of …