Can we make peanuts less dangerous for people with allergies?

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergy to common food products that causes patients who come in contact with an allergen to be affected across multiple organ systems. The symptoms can include: hives, swelling, itching of the skin, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, weak pulse, pale colour, and potentially death. Anaphylactic allergies to peanuts is the most common allergy among children in Canada at around 1.5% of all children affected although there are many other allergens including tree nuts, shellfish, sesame seeds and fish. There is an important distinction to make right now; that is the difference between true food allergies and food intolerance. Intolerances take place in the digestive tract and although they can make you feel miserable, they are not life threatening and occur when your body cannot break down something in the food (for example: lactose). A true food allergy can be life threatening and involves the immune system attacking even the smallest amount of an allergen, sometimes just from touching or inhaling the food is enough. The only current treatment for someone in anaphylactic shock is to give them epinephrine/adrenaline (from an EpiPen) and rush them to the hospital for immediate care. While some people’s allergies can go away later in life some people are stuck with them for life. Some recent work has been done on desensitization therapy which involves giving people small amounts of their allergens for a period of time in the hopes that they can either tolerate more allergen before getting a reaction or perhaps getting rid of the allergy all together. Desensitization therapy has shown promise with at least 50% of patients being able to tolerate more allergen than before. However, these patients are not cured of their allergy and they must continue to expose themselves to the allergen in order to maintain desensitization.

The most difficult part of an allergy is avoiding the allergen and this can cause problems when it comes to dining out or travelling. But what if we could just make peanuts less allergenic? Some new work by Zhao and colleagues has shown that if you expose peanuts to pulsed light (PL) you can reduce the level of the allergens that cause peanut allergy by a significant amount. PL light is used to kill microorganisms on food products to make them sterile for packaging. The allergens targeted by the PL are known as Ara proteins and come in multiple varieties (Ara h1, h2, h3, etc). The pulsed light damages the proteins through a process known as denaturation. Denaturation is what happens when proteins, which must have a specific shape, lose that shape and become non-functional (video here). A similar thing happens when you fry your eggs in the morning, the egg whites go from transparent to white. Denaturation can happen by heat, pH and exposure to heavy metals and is irreversible in most cases, which is why your egg whites don’t go back to being clear over time. Denatured proteins cannot perform their functions anymore and in most cases, do not cause the immune system to attack them. The research was able to show that when PL was applied to the peanut for a period of 7 minutes, the antibodies from allergic patients were over 80% less reactive to the peanut proteins. These results were confirmation of past experiments showing reductions in peanut allergens by Chun and Yang. The theory from these groups is that if you can make peanuts less allergenic by destroying the peanut allergens, then people with peanut allergies would be able to eat the foods without having to worry about having an anaphylactic reaction.

It still remains to be seen whether the peanuts still taste the same after dry roasting or manufacturing into peanut butter, but if taste is unaffected and this process can work on other foods associated with allergy then this could be a good way of making the food market a little safer for people with allergies. We still need to see if these peanuts can be eaten safely by people with peanut allergies, but this may be the novel way of helping people with life threatening allergies eat out or travel worry free.

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