This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
Researchers at North Carolina A&T University (NC A&T) are on the verge of leveling the playing field for millions who suffer allergies from peanuts and wheat. Now, in addition to being able to nosh on some of America’s favorite foods, allergy sufferers may also take advantage of the valuable nutrients these staples provide.
Peanut allergy is one of the most common causes of food-related anaphylaxis and affects about 2.8 million Americans, including 400,000 school-aged children. Wheat is one of the top eight food allergens in the United States.
Dr. Jianmae Yu, a food and nutrition researcher at NC A&T’s School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and her team found a way to treat peanuts and reduce their allergens by 98 to 100 percent. The treatment is effective whether peanuts are whole, broken into pieces, or ground into flour. Their research, which has proven effective in peanuts and shows promise in wheat, also has the potential to reduce foodborne allergens in tree nuts.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supported the research with funding through an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant. Based on the discovery, NC A&T has signed an agreement with a company to research the marketing potential of hypoallergenic peanut products and get them on store shelves in the near future.
Peanut allergies are triggered by proteins, some of which are more powerful than others, Yu said. “Our research focused on reducing these allergenic proteins. We found that treating peanuts with protein-breaking enzymes reduced allergenic proteins.”
The process consists of pretreating shelled and skinless peanuts with a food-grade enzyme. This post-harvest process does not change the peanut’s shape or cause lipid oxidation – a key consideration when determining a product’s shelf life.
Not only can treated peanuts reduce the severity of allergic reaction in the case of accidental exposure, Yu said they may also be used in immunotherapy. “Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts may be used to build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens in peanuts.”
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine performed skin prick tests to validate the research results on human test subjects. “Peanuts are increasingly used in food products, which make it difficult for the allergic individuals to avoid accidental exposure. Therefore, it is very important for us to find a way to make peanuts less or non-allergenic,” Yu said.
“This research is also important because peanuts can be a valuable addition to a healthy diet,” said Dr. Jan Singleton, registered dietitian nutritionist and director of NIFA’s Division of Food Safety.
Peanuts are enriched with many healthful nutrients, including vitamin E. Peanuts also contain riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and folates as well as minerals like copper, manganese, potassium, calcium, Iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.
Having achieved her goal of making peanuts safer to eat, Yu has turned her focus on other foodborne allergens – wheat. By modifying the technology, her research is finding a significant reduction in the amount of the allergenic protein gliadin in wheat flour. There are promising results from initial in vitro tests using plasma from people who are allergic to wheat flour.
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.