Good news for my nephew—and the other 3 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies: Hypoallergenic peanuts might be just around the corner.
Researchers at the University of Florida are using pulsed ultraviolet light, or PUV, to alter the nut’s allergy-inducing proteins, significantly reducing the allergic potential of peanuts—in some cases, up to 90 percent.
The technique essentially masks the proteins so the body can’t recognize them and release histamines, neurotransmitters that cause allergy symptoms. PUV-treated peanuts could pass through the body undetected.
“We believe the allergen can be controlled at the processing stage, before the product even goes on the shelf,” said Wade Yang, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, in a University of Florida press release.
Yang and his team are working to perfect the technique so that it can be used to create hypoallergenic whole peanuts and peanut products, such as peanut butter.
Peanut-allergy symptoms can range from minor irritation, such as skin rashes or tingling around the mouth, to death. Reactions can occur within minutes of exposure. According to the Mayo Clinic, the peanut allergy is the most common cause of anaphylaxis, in which a person’s airways begin to close as the throat swells and blood pressure drops as he or she goes into shock. These kinds of reactions require an immediate injection of epinephrine.
The peanut allergy is increasingly common in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an 18 percent rise in food allergies in kids between 1997 and 2007. Among the most common triggers are peanuts, milk, fish, and wheat. Kids with food allergies are more likely to have asthma, eczema, and other allergic conditions.
Though no one knows for sure why food allergies have grown in prevalence, some experts theorize that it has to do with hygiene: We’ve gotten good at killing off germs that the body would normally fight, so it’s instead waging war on the protein in our food. Others speculate it has something to do with changes in how food is processed.
Experts have tried to connect the dots between early-childhood exposure and peanuts—the theory being, if you’re exposed earlier, you have a better chance of developing a peanut tolerance—but so far, conclusive evidence is scant.
Last month, news of a peanut-allergy-curing skin patch made the rounds in the media. Developed by two French scientists, the patch is meant to teach the body to not overreact to peanuts by releasing small doses of peanut oil into the immune system through the skin. The oil doesn't enter the bloodstream, they say, so there's "no risk of a severe reaction." To be effective, the patch may need to be worn daily for several years, slowly reprogramming the body. It's currently being tested in human-safety trials in Europe and the US.
If successful, PUV-exposed peanuts could be a watershed for peanut-allergy sufferers; the nuts wouldn't take years for the person to acclimate to, and eating them wouldn't require doctor-prescribed shots or patches. Most of all, Yang's work would be the first to get at the problem from the other angle: fixing the peanuts instead of the person.