Researchers used pulsed light technology to inactivate allergenic proteins in whole peanuts. Could this make peanuts safer for those with allergies?
The results of the latest study, led by Wade Yang - an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition at the university - are published in the journal Food and Bioprocess Technology.
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), peanut allergies are on the rise in children, more than tripling in the US between 1997-2008.
Although peanut allergies are typically lifelong, FARE say around 20% of children with such an allergy do eventually outgrow it.
Peanuts are part of the legume family, which is different from tree nuts, but individuals who are allergic to peanuts are at increased risk of being allergic to tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews and walnuts.
Because anaphylaxis can be fatal, those people who are allergic to peanuts are advised to avoid them, and many sufferers carry epinephrine injectors in the event of exposure.
Yang's goal is to eliminate 99.9% of peanut allergens in whole peanuts, and he says he has moved closer to this goal by removing 80% of them.
He notes that if he can cut the allergens from 150 mg of protein per peanut to below 1.5 mg, 95% of peanut allergy sufferers would be safe.
Team used ultraviolet light technology on whole peanuts
The challenge in eliminating allergens from peanuts is that by doing so, he risks destroying the texture, color, flavor and nutrition from them, explains Yang.
He and his colleagues used pulsed ultraviolet light technology on whole peanuts in their latest study, which Yang says is useful since peanut processing typically begins from roasting whole peanuts. These roasted peanuts are then packaged to sell or are made into peanut butter.
"The latest study moves one step closer to the actual production," says Yang.
The pulsating light system consists of two lamps filled with xenon, two cooling blowers, one treatment chamber with a conveyor belt and a control module. This directs concentrated light bursts to modify the allergenic proteins in the peanuts.
Yang explains that this process makes it so human antibodies are unable to recognize the allergenic proteins as allergens - which means they do not release histamines that create allergy symptoms.
Though their findings are promising, Yang cautions that he and his team have only conducted peanut allergen experiments in a lab setting as of yet, but they hope to one day conduct clinical trials on animals and humans.
'Pulsed light has great potential in reducing peanut allergens'
Dr. Shih-Wen Huang is head of the Pediatric Allergy Clinic at the University of Florida and is familiar with Yang's research. He says the first step from here is to investigate whether allergic antibodies in the serum of peanut allergy patients will still bind with the remaining allergy proteins in Yang's refined peanuts.
Next, the researchers will observe whether the refined peanut extract produces skin-test reactions in such patients. Finally, the team plans to conduct a double blind, placebo-controlled test to observe whether patients develop allergy symptoms after eating the refined peanuts.
Though Dr. Huang says he is pleased with the team's progress, he notes that "more challenges are waiting until the final products are accepted from the public, especially the patients with peanut allergies."
In a previous study from 2012, Yang was able to remove 90% of the allergic potential from peanut protein extracts, but this study goes a step further in working with whole peanuts.
"This process proves that pulsed light can inactivate the peanut allergenic proteins and indicates that pulsed light has a great potential in peanut allergen mitigation," says Yang.
In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested eating peanuts in pregnancy lowers allergy risks for the child.