Hypoallergenic PeanutsPosted: 07 16, 2015
Illustration by Allie Mills
I was recently on a flight and as we gained altitude, I could feel my stomach growling. I crossed my fingers in hope of the two packets of complimentary peanuts, which have become a staple while traveling. As if reading my thoughts, a flight attendant announced that the in-flight snack service would begin shortly; however, peanuts would not be served because of a customer allergy. We were additionally asked not to open peanuts brought on board from other flights. I thought to myself that the life of someone with a peanut allergy must be spent in constant vigilance, and fear, of these unassuming legumes.
Approximately 3 million people in the U.S. report allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, or both (AAAAI). Allergies to peanuts arise from immunologic reactions to the major proteins found in peanut, primarily Ara h1, Ara h2, and Ara h3 (although additional peanut proteins can be allergens). Variation exists amongst peanut allergy sufferers as to which proteins trigger immune reactions; there may also be geographical differences in reactivity to the different proteins. In one study conducted in North America, 95% of peanut-allergic patients exhibited sensitivity to Ara h1, while only 35-70% of peanut-allergic patients from three European populations exhibited sensitivity to this specific peanut protein. In allergic individuals, the immune system identifies these peanut proteins as foreign objects, and thus launches an immune response, which leads to the symptoms associated with allergic reactions. The majority of reactions are caused by ingestion of peanuts or peanut products. Casual exposure, through skin contact and inhalation, presents a minor risk, except in young children who frequently put their hands in their mouth. However, there have been reports of allergic reactions to peanuts on commercial airplanes, as alluded to during my flight. But thanks to recent efforts by researchers at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, these individuals may soon find a reprieve.
Researchers in the Food and Nutritional Sciences Program at NC A&T have developed a method to treat whole roasted peanuts with food-grade enzymes in order to deactivate the allergenic proteins Ara h1 and Ara h2 by up to 98%. Initial clinical trials at UNC-CH indicated that such treatment of the peanuts was successful. The end result is non-GMO and preserves the nutritional value of the peanuts. In contrast to other attempts, the method developed at NC A&T does not utilize irradiation or genetic modifications. Research conducted at the University of Georgia in Tifton attempted genetic modification to remove the allergenic proteins from the peanuts; however, they found that many of these proteins are responsible for plant growth and full removal was not possible.
NC A&T has signed a licensing agreement with Toronto-based Xemerge to progress the testing and commercialization of these “hypoallergenic peanuts.” While work is still needed, especially to determine if a 98% reduction in two of the allergenic proteins in peanuts is sufficient for those with severe allergies, there is hope that those with peanut allergies may soon be answering the question, “creamy or chunky?”.
Peer edited and reviewed by Jaime Brozowski and Marissa Cann
Follow us on social media and never miss an Weird Science article:
This article was co-published on the SWAC Blog, The Pipettepen.