Okra Allergy: Everything You Need to Know

Okra is a staple in gumbos and other southern dishes.
Image Credit: RoyBkk/iStock/Getty Images

People tend to have opinions when it comes to okra: Some dislike the vegetable's slimy texture while others may extol its nutritional benefits. And then there's a third (but small) category: people who have an okra allergy.

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This is a rare allergy, says Robert Wood, MD, director of pediatric allergy and immunology and chief of the Eudowood Division of Allergy and Immunology in the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Search the World Health Organization database of allergens for okra, and no results turn up.

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Here's what you need to know about okra allergies.

What Is an Okra Allergy?

Okra allergies are a type of food allergy.

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"As with any food allergy, an allergy to okra means that your immune system has produced IgE antibodies that will lead to allergic symptoms with ingestion," Dr. Wood says.

Let's unpack that a bit: Your immune system, of course, is your body's first defense against invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. But sometimes things go awry, and your immune system mounts defenses against something that's no enemy at all.

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That's the case with food allergies. Your immune system creates antibodies called IgE (aka Immunoglobulin E), per Food Allergy Canada. The IgE antibodies then go on the move and lead to cells releasing chemicals known as histamines that cause allergic symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).

A food allergy, Dr. Wood notes, is different from contact sensitivity to okra, aka the effects that occur when you touch the veg.

"Okra commonly triggers localized rashes with direct contact," Dr. Wood says. That is, touching okra gives some people a rash. "Most people who have rashes with contact will be able to eat the food with no difficulty," Dr. Wood says.

There's another issue that can lead to people feeling discomfort after eating okra.

"Okra is high in salicylates," says Eric Ascher, DO, a family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital. Salicylates are found in many plants, per a June 2010 article in the ​Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics​.

"Those who are sensitive to these compounds may have more stomach discomfort after eating it," Dr. Ascher says.

The okra vegetable is in the mallow family (aka Malvaceae), and there are around 1,500 species in this family, per the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. That includes cocoa beans and durian, Dr. Ascher says. It also includes cottonseed, per Cox Health.

"Some people are allergic to one or more plants from this family and not all," Dr. Ascher says. This would be due to cross-reactivity — the substance in okra that pings your allergic response might do the same in a related food, such as durian.

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Symptoms of an Okra Allergy

"With a true allergy, all of the symptoms of an allergic reaction are possible," Dr. Wood says.

Even though you're having an allergic reaction to something you've eaten, it's not only your gastrointestinal system that may respond, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). You may also experience the effects on your skin, cardiovascular system or respiratory tract, according to the ACAAI.

An allergic reaction can lead to the following symptoms, according to Dr. Wood and the Mayo Clinic:

  • Hives
  • Vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Congestion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tingling sensation in the mouth
  • Feeling dizzy or faint

In extreme cases, your allergic reaction may trigger anaphylaxis, which causes an array of life-threatening symptoms, such as tightening airways, a rapid pulse and shock, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How to Alleviate Allergy Symptoms

If you know you have an allergy to okra, avoid eating it, Dr. Ascher says.

If you do ingest it, Dr. Wood says “symptoms can be treated with antihistamines.” If you have a more serious reaction, epinephrine (also known as an EpiPen) may be needed, he says.

Diagnosing an Allergy

Typically, the way you'll know you have an okra allergy is based on how your body reacts after you eat it.

"I always tell my patients that the best way to diagnose if you are allergic to okra, or any other food that makes you feel uncomfortable, is to keep a strict food journal," Dr. Ascher says. Note down foods that lead to discomfort or symptoms, he says. Then, try an elimination diet to see if eliminating the food stops the discomfort.

"If your allergy is more severe, you will likely be referred to an allergist for allergy testing," Dr. Ascher says.

An allergist will start by taking your history, asking you to share the symptoms that followed after eating okra, Dr. Wood says. "For most food allergies, skin testing or blood testing can be done to confirm or rule out the allergy," Dr. Wood says.

Because okra is less common, it's possible there isn't a commercially available test, Dr. Wood says. Your allergist will be able to do a skin test using the food itself in this case, he says.

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Other Health Considerations

There may be other reasons to avoid okra, aside from being allergic to it. Dr. Ascher shares a few:

  • The presence of oxalates:​ Okra is high in oxalates, a compound found naturally in foods, per the National Kidney Foundation. In your urine, oxalates can bind to calcium, forming crystals that eventually grow into stones. There's nothing innately problematic about oxalates. But: "Calcium oxalates commonly promote kidney stone formation," Dr. Ascher says. If you've previously had a kidney stone, you'll want to limit eating high-oxalate foods and avoid others entirely, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
  • Medication interference:​ For instance, if you have diabetes and take metformin, okra can interfere with the absorption of this medication, Dr. Ascher says. "If you are on a blood-thinning medication, like coumadin, it may counteract the ability for this medication to thin your blood appropriately," he says.
  • Contact dermatitis:​ Some people will develop hives or a rash after touching okra. Reactions that occur with contact are common, Dr. Wood says. (That's in contrast to the very rare food allergy.)

On the other hand, okra has a lot of benefits for people without allergies (and those who don't need to avoid it for the reasons listed above).

First off: A 1/2 cup of cooked okra contains 2 grams of fiber, according to the USDA. Eating high-fiber foods promotes bowel movements — and fiber has other benefits as well.

Okra also has antioxidants, and helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, Dr. Ascher says. Plus, it's high in vitamins and minerals, he adds.

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