Hypoallergenic peanuts, peanut butter, and other peanut products are a step closer to grocery stores with the signing of an exclusive licensing agreement for a patented process that claims to reduce allergens in peanuts by 98 percent.
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) in Greensboro signed the agreement with Xemerge, a Toronto-based firm that commercializes emerging technologies in food, agriculture, and a variety of other fields. The patented process was developed by Dr. Jianmei Yu, a food and nutrition researcher in the NC A&T School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and two former faculty members there, Dr. Mohamed Ahmedna and Dr. Ipek Goktepe, both of whom are now at Qatar University. “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,” Dr. Yu said. “Treated peanuts also can be used in immunotherapy,” she said. “Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts can build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens.” Research funding was provided by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The process treats roasted peanuts, removed from the shell and skin, with food-grade enzymes commonly used in food processing. The treatment consists of soaking the peanuts in an enzymatic solution. Studies show this treatment reduces key peanut allergens Ara h 1 to undetectable levels and Ara h 2 by up to 98 percent. The resulting peanuts look and taste like roasted peanuts. The peanuts are not genetically modified. The effectiveness of the process was demonstrated in human clinical trials using skin-prick tests at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In contrast to various other approaches to eliminating peanut allergens, the NC A&T process doesn’t involve chemicals or irradiation and uses commonly available food-processing equipment. The licensing agreement with Xemerge will mean royalty payments to the university, which is the assignee for any patents which result from federally funded research using its resources, explained Wayne Szafranski, NC A&T’s assistant vice chancellor for outreach and economic development. He said that when the hypoallergenic peanut products will actually be available to retail consumers depends on how fast Xemerge can drive commercialization of the process. “They are going to be very aggressive at approaching manufacturers,” Szafranski predicted. He noted that, while peanuts and associated products such as peanut flour are used in a wide variety of foods, the patented process should require “very little modification in food production lines.” Peanuts cause serious allergic reactions in an estimated 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, or about 2.8 million people. Highly sensitive children and adults can develop anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, in just a few seconds after ingesting extremely small amounts. Anaphylaxis symptoms can include difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, swelling of the tongue, eyes or face, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, blisters, itching, inflammation, pain, and, in some cases, even death. Peanut and tree nut allergies are the most severe of all food allergies, according to a 2007 NC A&T release about the research, affecting millions of people and causing 100-150 deaths from anaphylactic shock annually and many more hospitalizations. In industrialized nations, the allergy has been rapidly increasing in children, for causes that are not entirely understood. One study showed that, between 1997-2002, peanut allergies in children doubled in the United States.