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High hopes for hypoallergenic peanuts

By Daniel Gaitan

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Hypoallergenic peanut products could someday be available to the millions of Americans allergic to regular peanuts.

Researchers from North Carolina’s Agricultural and Technical State University have developed a patented process that reduces peanut allergens by up to 98 percent. Allergens are the substances that trigger allergic reactions. The new process reduces them by soaking de-shelled and roasted peanuts in a solution of food-grade enzymes.

The treated peanuts are made to look and taste like regular roasted peanuts, and they are not genetically modified.

"Treated peanuts can be used as whole peanuts, in pieces or as flour to make foods containing peanuts safer for many people who are allergic," said lead researcher Jianmei Yu in a statement.

The treated peanuts could even be used in immunotherapy, under a doctor's supervision, she added.

The process reduces two key peanut allergy triggers called Ara h 1 and Ara h 2. It reduces Ara h 1 to undetectable levels, and Ara h 2 by up to 98 percent. Human skin-prick trials were conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to measure the effectiveness of the process.

Agricultural and Technical State University recently signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Xemerge, a Toronto-based firm commercializing emerging technologies in food and agriculture. Xemerge recently opened an office near the university’s campus in Greensboro, N.C.

“It is definitely exciting to realize that we are actually able to commercialize one of our technologies,” Louis Judge III, director of technology transfer with the university, told Reuters Health.

Johnny Rodrigues, chief commercialization officer of Xemerge told Reuters Health there’s still no timetable for when the hypoallergenic peanut products would be available to grocery stores or food manufacturers.

“We have the FDA, and food manufacturers’ product cycles to factor in,” Rodrigues added. “Remember that in many cases, the peanut processors will be selling to a third party who will be integrating the hypoallergenic peanuts into their branded products.”

The initial research funding was provided by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yu, in collaboration with Xemerge, is working to refine the process by testing the effectiveness of other enzymes.

But Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician at Northwestern University in Chicago and author of The Food Allergy Experience, says allergy sufferers should be wary of new products.

“I love that people are working on products to improve the lives of people with peanut allergies, but do we need them and will people use them? I think more testing is needed,” she told Reuters Health. “Even a small amount of the allergenic proteins in peanuts can cause very severe allergic reactions.”

These reactions can vary from mild hives to severe swelling and low blood pressure. For adults living with peanut allergies, Gupta recommends they try soy or almond-based products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, nearly 4 million Americans are allergic to peanuts.

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