Hypoallergenic peanuts offer hope for peanut allergy sufferers

Science could soon open up a new range of culinary options for Americans with one of the most common and dangerous food allergies -- those who are allergic to peanuts. In a few years, foods might be available that contain "hypoallergenic peanuts."

North Carolina A&T State University is licensing technology to reduce the level of allergens in peanuts to a company called Xemerge, which aims to commercialize the process and bring hypoallergenic peanut products to market.

"This is one of the best technologies in the food and nutrition space we have seen," said Johnny Rodrigues, Chief Commercialization Officer of Xemerge, in a press release. "It checks all the boxes: non-GMO, patented, human clinical data, does not change physical characteristics of the peanut along with maintaining the nutrition and functionality needed, ready for industry integration from processing and manufacturing to consumer products."

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Dr. Jianmei Yu, a food scientist in the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at North Carolina A&T State University is leading research on a post-harvest treatment for hypoallergenic peanuts.
Lee Adams/School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, N.C. A&T State University
Dr. Jianmei Yu and her colleagues at the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at North Carolina A&T State University figured out how to remove most of the dangerous allergens from roasted peanuts by soaking them in an enzyme solution.

"Treated peanuts can be used as whole peanuts, in pieces or as flour to make foods containing peanuts safer for many people who are allergic," Yu explained.

"The treated peanut looks and tastes just like a regular peanut," said Wayne Szafranski, a university official who tasted them.

The stakes are high, and the market is potentially huge. About three million Americans are allergic to nuts, with peanuts being the most common nut allergy. The number of children with peanut allergies more than tripled from 1997 to 2008, for reasons that are not well understood.

For those with severe peanut allergies, exposure can set off a potentially deadly reaction called anaphylaxis, which can send blood pressure plummeting and interfere with breathing. Just avoiding obvious risks like peanut butter sandwiches isn't enough to keep them safe, since peanuts can be a hidden ingredient or cross-contaminant in many processed foods and restaurant recipes.

Making peanuts hypoallergenic

Dr. Steven Schnipper, an allergist affiliated with New York University Medical Center, sees patients with severe allergies daily in his practice. "When people are allergic to peanuts, there are different parts of the peanut molecule they can be allergic to," he explains.

The scientific name for the common American peanut is Arachis hypogaea, which is about 25% protein. Different types of peanut proteins are called Ara h 1, 2, 3, etc. Ara h 1 and 2 are the most likely to cause dangerous systemic reactions, whereas other peanut proteins might cause less severe reactions, if any.

Schnipper observes that "if you can get rid of the parts of the peanut molecule which are most likely to cause systemic reactions, this can be potentially very exciting."

That's what the North Carolina A&T researchers say they have done.

But. Schnipper warns that hypoallergenic peanuts may not work for all allergic patients. "The caveat is that it is hard to know for sure if an individual is going to respond. It may be worthwhile to do a challenge in the allergist's office to verify whether a peanut allergic patient is able to tolerate any new product."

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