There's been a lot of talk about the dangers of peanut allergies, and while news stories and magazine articles often play on the emotions of consumers in their reporting, it's true that some folks simply cannot tolerate a diet of America's favorite nut.
Without question, food-related anaphylaxis is a serious health problem that adversely affects about 2.8 million Americans, including 400,000 school-aged children. And while awareness of peanut allergies has helped tremendously in controlling the problem, there are still valid concerns that peanuts and peanut-related foods in their many forms can be a serious health risk for many.
The problem has certainly not been overlooked by U.S. peanut producers who strive to turn out the best high quality and healthy peanuts that can be grown. Neither has the problem been ignored by dedicated researchers who have been searching for a way to reduce the risks of food-related allergies, including adverse reactions to consuming peanut products.
Food-related allergies don't stop with peanuts; allergic reactions to wheat, which is one of the top eight food allergens in the United States, remains a problem, and new research funded by USDA may well address both problems in the near future.
Researchers at North Carolina A&T University (NC A&T) are on the verge of leveling the playing field for millions who suffer allergies from peanuts and wheat. That means allergy suffers can now—or soon will be able to—chow down on some of America’s favorite foods, and benefit from the valuable nutrients they provide.
Dr. Jianmae Yu, a food and nutrition researcher at NC A&T’s School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and her team found a way to treat peanuts and reduce their allergens by 98 percent to 100 percent. The treatment is effective whether peanuts are whole, broken into pieces, or ground into flour. Their research, which has proven effective in peanuts and shows promise in wheat, also has the potential to reduce foodborne allergens in tree nuts.
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"Our research focused on reducing allergenic proteins, some of which are more powerful than others. We found that treating peanuts with protein-breaking enzymes reduced allergenic proteins," Yu says, reducing the risks of peanut allergies among those sensitive to them.
According to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which supported the research with funding through an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant, the next move is to identify a company to research the marketing potential of "hypoallergenic peanut products" and help get them established in food retailers across the nation.
HYPOALLERGENIC PEANUT PRODUCTS
In peanuts, Yu says the process to reduce harmful proteins consists of pretreating shelled and skinless peanuts with a food-grade enzyme. This post-harvest process does not change the peanut’s shape or cause lipid oxidation – a key consideration when determining a product’s shelf life.
Not only can treated peanuts reduce the severity of allergic reaction in the case of accidental exposure, Yu says they may also be used in immunotherapy.
"Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts may be used to build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens found in peanuts," Yu explains.
USDA reports that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine performed skin prick tests to validate the research results on human test subjects.
"Peanuts are increasingly used in food products, which makes it difficult for the allergic individuals to avoid accidental exposure. Therefore, it is very important for us to find a way to make peanuts less or non-allergenic," Yu says.
USDA researchers agree.
"This research is also important because peanuts can be a valuable addition to a healthy diet,"” said Dr. Jan Singleton, registered dietitian nutritionist and director of NIFA’s Division of Food Safety.
USDA reports that peanuts are enriched with many healthful nutrients, including vitamin E. They also contain riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and folates, as well as minerals like copper, manganese, potassium, calcium, Iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.
The next step in research is to focus on other foodborne allergens, such as wheat Yu says. By modifying the technology, she believes her research will help to develop a significant reduction in the amount of the allergenic protein gliadin in wheat flour. She says results from initial in vitro tests using plasma from people who are allergic to wheat flour are promising.
Not only will this breakthrough benefit consumers but the peanut industry as well, as demand grows for hypoallergenic varieties of America's most versatile nut.