A post-harvest treatment to produce hypoallergenic peanuts showcased in USDA’s recently released 2014 “Report on Technology Transfer” holds promise for commercial applications.
Jianmei Yu, PhD, a food scientist with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) is leading research on a patented procedure that is significantly reducing or virtually eliminating two key allergens from peanuts without affecting the flavor.
According to Dr. Yu, the common American peanut, Arachis hypogaea, consists of approximately 25 percent protein, which makes peanuts a good source of dietary protein. “However, some of the specific proteins in peanuts are allergenic,” she says. “Peanut proteins are identified as Ara h 1, 2, 3, etc. Ara h 2 and Ara h 6 are the most likely to cause dangerous allergic reactions, while other peanut proteins are known to cause less severe, if any, reactions. Thus, the key to a hypoallergenic peanut is to eliminate the components of the peanut molecule that are the most likely to cause systemic reactions.”
To that end she and her N.C. A&T colleagues, Mohamed Ahmedna, PhD and Ipek Goktepe, PhD, found that, by soaking roasted peanuts that have been shelled and skinned in a solution containing (proprietary) food-grade enzymes, they can reduce the Ara h 1 and Ara h 2 protein levels by more than 98 percent, and the Ara h 6 content by up to 60 percent.
Dr. Yu says that these treated peanuts can be eaten whole, in pieces, or as flour in various products.
Clinical research at the University of North Carolina (UNC) involved skin prick tests of adults with known peanut allergy using an extract of N.C. A&T’s enzyme treated peanuts.
“The study demonstrated that reactivity to the treated peanut extract was substantially reduced compared to what is typical with normal peanut allergen,” says David Peden, MD, a UNC pediatric allergy specialist who co-authored a paper on this first human research with N.C. A&T’s hypoallergenic peanuts.
Oral studies are the next step, Dr. Peden relates, in order to evaluate the safety of consuming enzyme-treated peanuts by peanut allergic individuals, in addition to determining the threshold of enzyme-treated peanut products that would elicit a clinically significant reaction. “It’s too soon to predict when commercial products containing hypoallergenic peanuts will be on store shelves, but N.C. A&T’s technology holds great promise from a public health and family risk assessment perspective,” he emphasizes.
Dr. Yu concurs that hypoallergenic peanuts hold promise for people of all ages who are allergic to peanuts. “If it is shown that these particular consumers can safely eat hypoallergenic peanuts, demand is likely to stimulate both the agricultural production of peanuts and the use of allergen reduced peanuts in many processed foods,” she predicts.
Meanwhile, Dr. Yu concurrently serves as chief scientist for Alrgn Bio, the current hypoallergenic peanut technology licensee, which has commercial hypoallergenic peanut products in development. (Alrgn Bio is a spin-off of N.C. A&T and Xemerge, the Greensboro, North Carolina- and Toronto, Canada-based technology development company that originally licensed the A&T peanut technology.)
In the U.S., approximately three million people report allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, according to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE).
According to a study funded by FARE, the number of children in the U.S. with peanut allergy more than tripled between 1997 and 2008. Studies in the U.K. and Canada also showed a high prevalence of peanut allergy in school children.