Peanuts! Who knew they could be such a hassle? As the world’s leading cause of food allergies, the tiny members of the legume family sure are a nuisance for the intolerant, resulting in reactions that range from minor skin rashes to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Even worse, according to experts at FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), the incidences of peanut allergies have actually tripled in the last fifteen years!
Though this is a little disconcerting, all hope is not lost. A team of scientists led by Wade Yang from University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, recently revealed that they may have found a way to modify peanuts such that the nutritious "nuts" can be enjoyed by almost anyone that wishes to consume them.
But before we delve into the solution, let’s look at what happens when someone has an adverse response to the legume. Like all food allergies, those triggered by peanuts are a result of the body overreacting to something that is not dangerous and treating it as if it were harmful. In order to protect the body, the immune system's antibodies that are known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), tag the foreign food particles as "enemy invaders" that need to be destroyed.
The body responds by releasing its ammunition or what we commonly call histamines. The histamines try to get rid of the "harmful" food, by triggering commonly known allergy symptoms like sneezing, itchy hives, swelling, and vomiting. In some cases, the histamine may even induce anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction whereby a person goes into shock after his or her tongue swells, breathing tubes constrict, and blood pressure falls.
Over the years, scientists have made numerous attempts at finding a way to prevent the false triggers. These have ranged from building up a peanut tolerance to tricking the immune system to ignore certain peanut proteins. Unfortunately, none have been very effective. More recent research has revolved around gut bacteria to see if the allergies are caused by lack of certain species of the tiny microbes.
However, it is not until Wade Yang started focusing on the cause of the allergies, i.e. the peanut, that a possible solution has emerged. The assistant researcher's method involves pelting whole peanuts with quick bursts of xenon-light. The ultra-violet radiation generated by the xenon helps inactivate the major peanut proteins Ara h1-h3, so that human antibodies don't recognize them as allergens.
While Yang, who revealed his findings in the September edition of Food and Bioprocess Technology, has so far only been able to inactivate 80% of the allergens, he believes he can get the number up to 99.9%. The researcher says he could possibly get to even 100% , but thinks that it would destroy the taste, texture, flavor, and nutrition of peanuts. However, even with 99.9% inactivation, Yang claims that the allergenic protein per peanut product can be reduced from 150 mg to 1.5 mg, making peanuts safe for 95% of the people that are currently allergic.
Given that Yang's trials are still in the early stages, it will take a few years before the modified peanuts come to market. However, the initial results are extremely encouraging. If successful, the technique could be used to inactivate allergens in tree nuts, like almonds and cashews as well as other common allergy-inducing foods like eggs, shrimp and soybeans.
Resources: Gizmag.com, medicalnewstoday.com