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Researchers Join the Fight Against Peanut Allergens

By Amy Spillman
April 5, 2002

On average, Americans consume more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut products each year. The nutty legumes are a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, niacin and folic acid. They contain mostly unsaturated fat, which has been shown to lower “bad” LDL-cholesterol levels in the blood. Unfortunately, for a small but growing sector of the population, peanuts also induce an allergic reaction.

Agricultural Research Service scientists in New Orleans, La., are looking for solutions to the peanut allergy problem. In one research project, they are trying to determine how certain processing methods affect peanut allergenicity. In another, they are looking to see if certain peanut cultivars are less allergenic than others.

Soheila J. Maleki and Si-Yin Chung, at the ARS Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, have made several discoveries through this work. They have found that roasting peanuts causes a marked increase in their allergenic properties. Although a few other scientists have noted this correlation, no one has ever suggested a reason why--until now.

Maleki recently published two papers addressing specific structural and molecular/biochemical changes that raw peanut proteins undergo during roasting that may contribute to increases in their allergenic properties. According to Maleki, if there are processing methods that can increase the allergenic properties of peanuts, there may also be processing methods that can reduce them.

Even if there aren’t, however, SRRC scientists may still be able to create a safer nut. Maleki and collaborators are currently developing antibodies against three of the best- characterized peanut allergens (Ara h 1, Ara h 2 and Ara h 3). They hope to use these antibodies to screen the U.S. core peanut germplasm collection and determine the levels of these allergens in each cultivar. Cultivars with naturally lower levels of allergens could then be crossbred to develop a hypoallergenic peanut plant.

So far, the researchers have screened part of the germplasm collection for Ara h 1 and have found major differences in the levels of this allergen in various cultivars. They are currently repeating these experiments to confirm their findings.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

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