This is the first in a three-part series examining industry efforts to develop safer foods for those with allergies.
As the number of affected people, especially children, increases, one could say the food industry has entered an age of allergens. More people are avoiding certain food items because of medical conditions. The trend has researchers seeking solutions, or ways to make such foods safer for those with allergies. They are studying reactive proteins in wheat and peanuts and even introducing allergenic food to infants.
Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), McLean, Va. The potentially deadly disease affects 1 in every 13 children under 18 years of age in the United States, and the economic cost of children’s food allergies is nearly $25 billion per year, according to FARE. Food allergies among children increased by about 50% between 1997 and 2011, according to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Millions of parents know the dangers of peanut allergies that affect their children. Alrgn Bio, Greensboro, N.C., is developing a post-harvest process designed to neutralize allergenic proteins in peanuts. While people with peanut allergies still may not be able to eat the peanuts, the peanuts would be safer, or less likely to cause a hospital stay because of accidental digestion.
New research also is showing that exposing infants to allergen-containing foods might make it less likely they will acquire allergenic conditions later in life. Before Brands, Menlo Park, Calif., is developing edible products that use the company’s Early Adaptive Tolerance blend of whole food proteins and vitamin D to help provide immune system training. The products are designed to be incorporated into the diet of infants about 6 months of age.
People with celiac disease, meanwhile, must avoid bread or other food with gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye, barley or triticale. About 1% of the U.S. population has celiac disease, according to Beyond Celiac, Ambler, Pa.
Researchers in both Manhattan, Kas., and Madrid, Spain, are exploring the reactive proteins in wheat varieties, hoping their discoveries one day might lead to wheat varieties that are safe for people with celiac disease to eat.
Making peanuts safer for all
Still in development, a new process for peanuts from Alrgn Bio is designed to make the world a safer place for people with peanut allergies. However, those people would not be able to eat those peanuts.
“It’s really not for people with peanut allergies,” said Kit McQuiston, chief executive officer of Greensboro-based Alrgn Bio. “It’s the other 300 million people (in the United States) that could be eating it without any loss of their lifestyle or taste or performance of the peanut.”
A post-harvest process neutralizes allergenic proteins in the peanuts.
“These will be substantially safer,” he said. “That’s why we call them safer instead of safe. The idea here is that if there is an accidental ingestion from one of the peanuts in a restaurant or an airplane or a school or a stadium, chances are they won’t have an anaphylaxis severe reaction, having to go to the hospital. So the idea here is to make it much safer for people with allergies.”
The innovation may allow restaurant operators to serve peanuts or foods with peanuts in them and reduce their fear of liability, Mr. McQuiston said. The treated peanuts could be placed in a bag whole or ground up into peanut butter. They could be incorporated into a snack mix, a nut bar or a power shake for weightlifting. Snacks in vending machines at school could contain the peanuts. Labeling on products would need to state clearly that they are not for people with peanut allergies, Mr. McQuiston said.
Commercialization of the product, however, may be two years out.
“It’s a small company,” Mr. McQuiston said. “All of our resources are primarily focused on testing the technology and improving the technology and the science. I think it’s really two years out before we start thinking about commercializing the product.”
The process originated in research at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. The university licensed its patented, post-harvest technology to Alrgn Bio in 2014.
A study on the work at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University appeared in the March 2015 issue of Food Research International. The study investigated the effects of ultrasound-assisted alcalase treatments on the concentration of major allergenic proteins (Ara h 1 and Ara h 2) in roasted peanut kernels and the allergen characteristics of treated peanut extracts.
Alrgn Bio, after performing in vitro tests, now is sponsoring research on mice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If the mice tests go well, human oral tests will follow.
Mr. McQuiston, who has a daughter that is allergic to peanuts, became involved with Alrgn Bio about two years ago and began investing in the company. His interest grew until he was named c.e.o. A real estate developer from New York, Mr. McQuiston said he also invests in new technology.
“I am shepherding the process to get the technology out into the world,” he said of the post-harvest peanut process.