Interaction between food antigens and the immune system: Association with autoimmune disorders

Autoimmun Rev. 2020 Mar;19(3):102459. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2020.102459. Epub 2020 Jan 7.


It has been shown that environmental factors such as infections, chemicals, and diet play a major role in autoimmune diseases; however, relatively little attention has been given to food components as the most prevalent modifiers of these afflictions. This review summarizes the current body of knowledge related to different mechanisms and associations between food proteins/peptides and autoimmune disorders. The primary factor controlling food-related immune reactions is the oral tolerance mechanism. The failure of oral tolerance triggers immune reactivity against dietary antigens, which may initiate or exacerbate autoimmune disease when the food antigen shares homology with human tissue antigens. Because the conformational fit between food antigens and a host's self-determinants has been determined for only a few food proteins, we examined evidence related to the reaction of affinity-purified disease-specific antibody with different food antigens. We also studied the reaction of monoclonal or polyclonal tissue-specific antibodies with various food antigens and the reaction of food-specific antibodies with human tissue antigens. Examining the assembled information, we postulated that chemical modification of food proteins by different toxicants in food may result in immune reaction against modified food proteins that cross-react with tissue antigens, resulting in autoimmune reactivity. Because we are what our microbiome eats, food can change the gut commensals, and toxins can breach the gut barrier, penetrating into different organs where they can initiate autoimmune response. Conversely, there are also foods and supplements that help maintain oral tolerance and microbiome homeostasis. Understanding the potential link between specific food consumption and autoimmunity in humans may lay the foundation for further research about the proper diet in the prevention of autoimmune diseases.

Keywords: Autoimmune disease; Diet; Food; Molecular mimicry; Oral tolerance; Protein modification.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies / immunology
  • Antigens / immunology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology*
  • Dietary Proteins / immunology*
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Immune System
  • Immune Tolerance
  • Molecular Mimicry


  • Antibodies
  • Antigens
  • Dietary Proteins