Modified Food for Allergy: Could Peanut Allergies Be Relieved By "Franken-Peanuts?"

Sloane Miller Health Guide
  • This is Part One of a weekly, 3-Part Series on Modified Foods For Food Allergies.

    Part Two is about fermenting soy to reduce allergens.

    Part Three is about modifying eggs to reduce allergic reactions.

     

     

    Would you eat a peanut stripped of all that makes it a peanut - including the proteins that could cause a deadly allergic reaction?

     

    When a food allergic person reacts adversely to a particular food they are, in fact, reacting to the protein in the food. So, some people (geneticists, mostly) thought the way to reduce the chances of a highly allergic reaction is to get rid of the offending protein.

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    However, if you remember from your grammar school science class, pulling at one strand of a genetic code could mean something else falls away, something else you might need or want.

     

    In general, the idea to genetically delete the proteins in food that make some people very, very ill has been around for a while. In 2001, a research team was actually looking for the "peanut gene."

    "Gary Bannon, PhD, and his research team have focused their efforts on peanuts because the exposure risk to this food is high and it can trigger particularly severe allergic reactions in peanut-sensitive individuals. The researchers have successfully altered the three major peanut allergens -- Ara h 1, 2, and 3 -- to prevent the IgE binding necessary for an allergic response."

     

    More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the peanut-gene team:

    "Determined scientists, in some cases with peanut-industry funding, are trying to develop other therapies, or a vaccine, to prevent or reduce the severity of peanut reactions. A nut-free peanut would be genetically altered so that it is less likely to set off an immune response. Peanut farmers and food processors have given $5.6 million over the past decade to eight scientists, mainly for peanut-allergy work, says Howard Valentine, of the American Peanut Council."

     

    Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, Tifton, was also mentioned in the WSJ article. According the WSJ, "She wants to develop a plant whose peanuts are free of the three major protein allergens." The article goes on to say that even "if Dr. Ozias-Akins gets there, it isn't clear that the world will embrace the results of her work.

    Says Duke's Dr. Burks, ‘If you take out all those proteins that cause allergic reactions to the peanut, then you no longer have a peanut.' Consumers may reject a genetically modified, nut-free peanut. Dr. Ozias-Akins is aware of the skeptics but hopes the benefits will outweigh concerns. ‘Nothing -- or very little -- we eat today is natural or hasn't been exposed to artificial selection,' she says.

    ‘It's the best solution on the horizon right now,' says Don Koehler, executive director of Georgia Peanut Commission. ‘We may never have an allergen-free peanut, but you've got to try. You've got to dream a little'."

     

    Honestly, Franken-peanut is NOT my dream. But given the spike of deathly peanut allergies in children, I can see why the parents of anaphylactically allergic children would be clamoring for this.

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    Genetically Modified Food: Good or Bad?

    The pro argument for genetic modifications of foods is that this is, essentially, a natural process: it's like cross-pollination or natural selection is. As Joe Hotchkiss, a professor of food science and toxicology at Cornell University says: "I don't like the word "genetically modified food." Virtually all of our foods have been genetically modified. Take the apple, for example. There are literally dozens of varieties of apples. How did we get those dozens of varieties? We genetically modified the apple through conventional breeding. We crossed one kind of apple with another apple, and we produced very different apples -- different color, different flavor, different functions. So almost all of our foods have been genetically modified in some way. What's different now is that we have some new techniques to do it. I usually like the idea of genetic engineering or recombinant technology. All of our foods, just about, are modified genetically."

     

    The con argument is precisely the opposite -- this is not a natural process, but man-made, and the outcomes of are entirely unknown. (Wikipedia has a decent article outlining the differences.)

     

    What do you think? Are you for a peanut that is no longer a peanut if it MAY (and they aren't certain of the anti-allergy properties) reduce the possibility of allergic reactions for millions of children worldwide?

Published On: April 06, 2008