Anyone who enjoys eating peanuts holds the hope that one day peanut allergies will be a thing of the past. For decades, researchers, food scientists, inventors and others have tried to find a solution for peanut allergies.
As the media has given increasing attention to the issue, there has also been more public attention focused recently on hypoallergenic peanuts—or on ways to reduce the allergenic components in peanuts.
At the outset, it’s important to understand the term “hypoallergenic.” Hypoallergenic does not mean allergy-free or non-allergenic and was first used in the 1950s in skin care products. According to Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, hypoallergenic means “having little likelihood of causing an allergic response.”
In the past few years, several hypoallergenic peanut methods have emerged from the lab, gained media attention and have entrepreneurs seeking to commercialize them. All processes are non-GMO and claim allergens are reduced but not eliminated completely.
National Peanut Board explored reports by researchers, entrepreneurs, the media and others about the possibility of bringing a hypoallergenic peanut to market.
For those of us outside the medical and allergy communities, discrepancies lie between claims made in the news and actual clinical test results to date.
“I got calls from major national news outlets who were excited about the hypoallergenic peanut news and I had to say to each of them, ‘slow down, we still have a long way to go,’” said Michelle Hernandez, Investigator, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lead researcher of one hypoallergenic peanut study
To produce a hypoallergenic peanut, researchers coat the peanut with an enzyme.
Some researchers are skeptical about claims about the reduction of only two of the seven allergens. What about the remaining allergens? One research and development scientist with a major manufacturer, who asked to have his name withheld, said hypoallergenic peanut products are irrelevant from a manufacturer’s point-of-view. He indicated it takes a minute amount—sometimes a nanogram—in a highly allergic person to cause a severe reaction. He worries that putting a hypoallergenic peanut on the market would give consumers a false sense of security, while not eliminating the problem of peanut allergies.
Other claims include the enzyme process “maintains the nutrition and functionality needed,” “has same taste” and “does not change physical characteristics.”
“How does the…process affect flavor, texture or nutrition? No one can possibly know without more testing,” said Soheila Maleki, Ph.D., Lead Research Scientist, Food Allergy Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eleanor Garrow-Holding is founder and CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT) and a member of NPB’s Food Allergy Education Advisory Council. Also, she is the parent of a son with life-threatening food allergies, including a peanut allergy. “As a parent, I think hypoallergenic peanuts are confusing and dangerous. Hypoallergenic peanuts are not allergen-free, so how could someone be sure they wouldn’t react if they ate one? I can’t imagine someone with a peanut allergy wanting to take that risk.
“Hypoallergenic peanuts allow the non-allergic person to say peanut allergies are no big deal. It trivializes allergies along with the life-threatening reactions some people get when they eat certain foods. I’m afraid proponents of hypoallergenic peanuts are offering a simple solution to a vexing problem.”