Peanut allergies are a very serious issue and something we have never taken lightly, for obvious reasons. In the U.S. alone, peanut allergies are present in 0.9% of the population — or about 2.8 million people — and are recognized as one of the most severe food allergies with life-threatening effects, including rapid pulse, a severe drop in blood pressure, constriction of airways, and even death. These dangers are why some schools have banned peanut products from cafeterias altogether, making the classic PB&J more of a weapon than a comforting lunch item.
Making matters worse, diagnosed peanut allergies in young children have increased dramatically over the last 10 years. Although researchers are still trying to figure out why, postulating conflicting theories that include early exposure and lack thereof. However, they may have at the very least discovered a solution to make peanuts hypoallergenic and safe to consume for all.
Dr. Mohamed Ahmedna, along with a team of scientists at North Carolina A&T University’s Agriculture Dept., has discovered a way to remove nearly all allergens from peanuts without altering their DNA.
The process for creating these peanuts is remarkably simple: after roasting, shelling and peeling, the peanuts are soaked in a food-grade enzymatic solution. The enzymatic solution breaks down the protein that causes the allergy. This treatment reduces two key allergens: “Ara h 2” by up to 98%, and “Ara h 1” to undetectable levels. The process seemingly does not affect the shape, taste, or texture of the peanut, and it won’t cause peanut products to go rancid or change color.
The most promising evidence came from small but favorable human skin prick test, and those with a diagnosed peanut allergy did not have allergic reactions after exposure to the enzyme-soaked peanuts.
The treated peanuts can be used whole or in pieces to make any common peanut-based products, such as flour or our favorite, peanut butter. The technology for this process has been recently licensed to a firm that commercializes emerging technologies in food and agriculture, meaning the process is one step closer to reaching the consumer.
Alternate research from Wade Yang, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida also found a way to decrease the number of allergens, simply using pulsed light technology. PLT may remove up to 80% of peanut allergens in the whole nut. Yang’s team found that the heating effect of UV light breaks down the protein to the point where 95% of those with peanut allergies would be safe. But, the most beneficial effect of this method is the ability to simultaneously roast the peanuts. Yang is hopeful the future of peanut roasting will include pulsed UV light, thereby reducing allergens across the peanut industry. Us too!
In the meantime, while both methods show promise, it’s important to note that there is still a ways to go before a truly safe hypoallergenic peanuts hits store shelves. Peanuts contain seven different allergens and the enzyme solution only appears to affect two of them — meaning there’s still some work to be done.