As Europe prepares for tougher rules on allergen labelling, a new study could help food makers by slicing away the allergenicity of peanut products, reports Lindsey Partos.
An estimated 4 per cent of adults and 8 per cent of children in the EU - the total population tops 380 million - suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
There is no current cure for a food allergy, and vigilance by an allergic individual is the only way to prevent a reaction: but a peanut allergy can be so severe that only very tiny amounts can be enough to trigger a response.
Keeping a pace with the rise in sufferers, new legislation enforced in the EU at the end of 2004 brought in considerable legal requirements to curb the risk for food allergy sufferers.
Directive 2003/89/EC, amending Directive 2000/13, essentially flags up to the consumer possible allergens present in a food product.
Investigating a range of processing methods, researchers from North Carolina A&T University in the US discovered that one fermentation method reduced the detectable level of major allergenic proteins, like Ara h1 and Ara h2, by as much as 70 per cent, without causing any adverse effects on the sensory quality of the final product.
"It is hoped that careful control of the process conditions may enable complete modification of allergenic proteins into non-allergenic and readily soluble proteins," says Jianmei Yu, a researcher on the study.
"This finding is good news to the food industry in general, where peanuts are used as an ingredient in food product development and food preparation," adds the researcher, speaking this week at meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
The European Directive 2003/89/EC marks an end to the 20 year old '25 per cent rule', and heralds the mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soy, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
Working the new rules to their advantage, ingredients players are offering 'allergen free' alternatives for food formulations.
UK firm Tastetech, for example, recently launched a range of 'nut-free' nut flavourings for food makers keen to gain the nut-free labels and for inclusion in a raft of food applications.
"Our new nut-free flavourings are authentic and can be added to a range of products to flavour and enhance. This is especially important for those allergic to nuts," said Roger Sinton, managing director of TasteTech.
But development work is reliant on fundamental science, and how their findings can shed light on the evolution of food allergies.
In January this year, food makers came one step closer to being able to identify what makes a protein more likely to become an allergen; and consequently slicing them out of food formulations.
Scientists at the Norwich-based Institute of Food Research (IFR) claim that over a hundred allergens could be classified into just a handful of protein families.
They suggest that just four 'super-families' account for more than 65 per cent of food allergens.
"Knowing what makes a protein more likely to become an allergen could make it easier for manufacturers to identify potential allergens in novel foods and ingredients, preventing them from reaching the consumer," said Dr Clare Mills, head of the allergy research team at the IFR.