Food makers using potential food allergens in their formulations will benefit from the findings of a new food consortium, 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 means food makers must flag up on the food label possible allergens present in a food product.
In a bid to improve science's understanding of food allergies, a new Food Allergy Research Consortium has been launched in the US.
Funded with $17 million over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the consortium is led by Hugh Sampson at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
In addition, approximately $5 million will fund a statistical center to support the consortium.
"The expertise of the Food Allergy Research Consortium provides a unique opportunity to investigate basic immunologic mechanisms associated with food allergy in animal models and humans, and, ultimately, to test novel therapies to treat food allergy," says Daniel Rotrosen, director of NIAID's Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation.
The consortium will conduct basic, clinical and epidemiological studies.
A clinical study to evaluate a potential peanut allergy therapy is the consortium's first project.
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.
But development work, as in the case of the consortium, 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.