Scientists say a special fermentation process may significantly reduce the potential for allergic reaction to peanut products.
In a biochemical process, fermentation is used in which microorganisms break down a substance into simpler ones, such as when yeast is used to form alcohol from sugar.
Many foods, from beer and wine to yogurt and soy sauce, are fermented.
Researchers have now discovered that a special fermentation process can cut levels of major allergy-triggering proteins in peanut flour by up to 70 percent. They hope to be able to refine the processing method to such an extent that it can render the culprit proteins completely non-allergenic.
According to Dr. Jianmei Yu, and her colleagues at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro if the new processing method is successful it could allow for allergy-free peanut butter, cookies and other peanut products.
Sometimes the immune system reacts to particular proteins in a food, and peanuts are one of the main causes of food allergies.
This reaction triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals, leading to symptoms such as tingling and swelling in the mouth and throat, breathing difficulty, hives, nausea and diarrhea.
In severe cases food allergies can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylactic shock.
Recent research has suggested that peanut allergies are on the rise among U.S. children younger than 5 years old and at present the only way for food allergy sufferers to prevent an attack is to completely avoid the problem food.
Yu says fermentation works by degrading the allergy-triggering peanut proteins, and in their work with roasted peanut flour and isolated peanut protein, she and her colleagues have found that their fermentation process substantially reduced the concentration of two major allergenic proteins, Ara h1 and Ara h2.
Yu says the assumption is that fermentation will not alter the flavor of peanut products, but their research has not yet reached the taste-testing stage.
The team presented their findings in Atlanta at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.