An Antidote to Food Allergies?

New process could maintain foods' flavor while removing allergens

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By Eve Daniels

Challenge: Try to go one week without eating peanuts, dairy or soy. But first, get ready to spend a lot of time checking labels at the grocery store, to cook a lot of meals from scratch, and to be an extra-cautious customer when dining out.

Even if you're steering clear of these foods on the surface, everything from oils, candy and cereal to veggie burgers and energy drinks "may contain traces" of the proteins. And for the 3.5 percent of Americans with food allergies, or roughly 11 million people, those trace amounts could be enough to cause a severe, even life-threatening, reaction.

The team of students and researchers includes (back row) Boyle; Ismail; graduate student Chelsey Hinnenkamp and (front row) graduate students Courtney Lasky and Amy Mathiowetz; and post-doctoral researcher Catrin Tyl.

Fortunately, help is on the way: Thanks to the work of Pam Ismail and fellow University of Minnesota researchers, there may be a solution that doesn't involve the hassles of a limited diet, nor the risks of straying from it. This is especially good news for parents who struggle to keep their children safe, healthy and happy, in spite of food allergies.

"Our project deals with reducing the allergenicity of peanut, dairy and soy protein ingredients that are used in multiple food products," explains Ismail, adding that those sources of protein are among the eight culprits most commonly linked to food allergies (the others are eggs, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and wheat).

At the same time, the goal is to maintain the foods' original properties when using these protein ingredients. "We want to make sure the texture, taste and nutritional value stay the same," says Ismail, "because if those get altered, people won't eat it."

This MnDRIVE-funded technology incorporates safe modification tools, including food-grade enzymes that exist naturally in fruits and vegetables, as well as in our guts. Simply stated, these enzymes "chop off" some of the protein structures that are allergenic.

Collaborators Srirama Rao and Pam Ismail lead the project.

The allergenicity is reduced even more through controlled conjugation, or binding, with carbohydrates. This approach could be used to make the ingredients themselves hypoallergenic, and further down the road, as an injection treatment that makes people (and animals) less sensitive to foods containing these protein ingredients.

"This desensitization therapy has worked for certain types of allergies like bee stings, where you slowly desensitize people over time," says Srirama Rao, a project collaborator with appointments in Veterinary Medicine and the Medical School. "So this is the direction it's going and there's a lot of potential."

Ismail's group has already filed an invention disclosure with the university's Office for Technology Commercialization. The next step is to reach the official "hypoallergenic" level in the lab.

"In order for a protein ingredient to be recognized by the FDA as hypoallergenic, the allergenicity has to be reduced by at least 90 percent," says Ismail. "We're at 84 percent. So we're very close."

It may happen tomorrow or a year from now, admits Ismail, but once they get to 90 percent, the benefits are likely to transform lives and livelihoods.

"Dairy and soybean production are huge industries in Minnesota," notes Ismail, "so this could help the food industry and the farmers, while also giving a lot more options to people who suffer from food allergies."

Proceed with Caution

Ismail's approach to making three common food proteins hypoallergenic would not only provide more menu options to those with allergies. It would also offer more peace of mind when it comes to avoiding those foods. Here's a small taste of the products that "may contain" these ingredients.


Most people with allergies know to avoid tofu, soy sauce, soy milk and similar foods, but they also have to be careful with:

  • Infant formulas
  • Vegetable broth
  • Baked goods, cereals and crackers
  • Canned tuna and meat
  • Vegetarian meat substitutes
  • High-protein energy bars and snacks


Just a few unexpected sources may include:

  • Chocolate candy
  • Pastries, cookies, pudding, pies
  • African, Asian and Mexican dishes
  • Chili sauce, hot sauce, pesto, salad dressing
  • Glazes and marinades


Besides milk itself, obvious foods to avoid include butter, cheese, cream and other dairy products. But some potential sources are less obvious, such as:

  • Lunch meats, hot dogs, sausages
  • Shellfish (sometimes dipped in milk to reduce odor)
  • Steaks (many restaurant chefs put butter on grilled
  • steaks to add flavor)
  • Certain medications

Source: Food Allergy Research & Education, Inc.