New research appears to indicate that the consumption of red meat can trigger a dangerous immune response that can trigger cancer.

Scientists from the University of California in San Diego say that eating red meat introduces a molecule into body tissues that does not naturally occur in humans, but occurs at high levels in pork, beef and lamb.

This is a new angle on the perceived danger of eating red meat; hitherto attention has focused primarily on saturated fats and chemicals produced during the cooking process, reported BBC News.

The new research, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on a sugar called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc). Tests on three human volunteers – all members of the research team – confirmed that if the sugar is present in the diet, it is absorbed into body tissues such as the blood vessels.

The tests also suggested that because the molecule is not naturally present in the body, it is viewed as an invader by the immune system, which is sparked into action.

Lead researcher Professor Ajit Varki is reported by the BBC as saying that the molecule was almost certainly not immediately toxic, and it was possible that humans had built up a tolerance after hundreds of thousands of years of eating meat.

“It could be that the damage only builds up over years,” he said.

“However, we are now living longer and the question arises whether the gradual accumulation of Neu5Gc and the simultaneous presence of antibodies against could be involved in some diseases of later life.”