Have you ever had stomach pain after eating pizza topped with green peppers, or gotten diarrhea after a dinner of stuffed peppers? Though bell peppers are full of nutrients, these colorful veggies aren't for everyone. Stomach cramps after eating them could indicate an allergy or intolerance.
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Bell Pepper Allergy
Food allergies occur when the immune system has an abnormal reaction to the proteins in a certain food. Though bell pepper is not a common food allergen, it's possible that digestive problems after eating these vegetables could indicate an immune response.
According to the Mayo Clinic, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting can all be signs of food allergy. "Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food vary, but can also include skin rashes, hives, itching in the throat, swelling and difficulty breathing," says gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD, an assistant professor at Touro College in New York City.
An allergy to bell pepper is also associated with allergies to other substances. The Mayo Clinic states that having a mugwort pollen allergy (also known as hay fever) may make you more likely to be allergic to bell peppers.
In addition, an older study published in November 2004 in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy found that bell peppers were part of the "latex-fruit syndrome," in which people allergic to latex are also commonly allergic to certain fruits and vegetables. If you have an existing allergy to latex or mugwort pollen, you may be at higher risk of a bell pepper allergy.
Bell Pepper Intolerance
A second possible cause of stomach pain after eating bell peppers is a food intolerance. Though intolerances share some symptoms with allergies, they aren't exactly the same thing.
"A food intolerance is often mislabeled as a food allergy," notes Dr. Sonpal. "A food intolerance or a food sensitivity occurs when a person has difficulty digesting a particular food. This can lead to symptoms such as intestinal gas, abdominal pain or diarrhea."
Because blood tests can't always pinpoint food intolerances, the typical process for diagnosing them is to keep a journal of the foods you've eaten and the timing of any unpleasant symptoms. Your doctor or dietitian may also recommend you remove bell peppers from your diet for several weeks, then gradually reintroduce them to see if they cause symptoms.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, food intolerances are often dose-related. For instance, you might not be able to down a whole container of red pepper hummus without digestive upset, but you may be able to tolerate a small amount of peppers.
Other Things to Consider
Even if you don't have an allergy or intolerance to bell peppers, it's still possible to occasionally experience digestive upset after eating them. This may simply be because of the fibrous structure of peppers.
"The skin of bell peppers is hard to break down because the outer skin is tough and fibrous," says Dr. Sonpal. "This can make it hard for the body to break down, particularly if it is consumed raw. The remnants of it often end up in the stool, causing gas."
Another potential cause of stomach cramps is a sensitivity to a carbohydrate called fructose. "The carbs [in bell peppers] are mostly sugars, such as glucose and fructose," says Dr. Sonpal. "Fructose is usually absorbed in the small intestine, but for those with fructose intolerance, some travels to the colon, where bacteria ferment the fructose. This causes the release of hydrogen and methane gases, which cause pain, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea."
Finally, an isolated adverse reaction to bell peppers could be the result of food poisoning. If you have a one-time experience of stomach pain or diarrhea, poor food-handling practices or spoilage may be to blame. Always wash peppers before consuming them and be sure to inspect them for moldy or discolored spots.
Read more: How to Keep Peppers Fresh After Cutting
Is This an Emergency?
- Cleveland Clinic: "Food Problems: Is It an Allergy or Intolerance?"
- Clinical & Experimental Allergy: "Characterization of Cross-Reactive Bell Pepper Allergens Involved in the Latex-Fruit Syndrome"
- Niket Sonpal, MD, gastroenterologist and assistant professor, Touro College, New York City
- Mayo Clinic: "Food Allergy"