Secret Allergens in Modern Foods

We can avoid the most common allergens such as wheat, eggs, or peanuts by reading labels on food items. Using molecular farming, scientists are now able to introduce new proteins in plants to develop various foods. Will this introduce hidden allergens in our foods? Are regulatory bodies going to do anything about it? Let’s take a look at the current situation (as of 2023) of these secret food allergens.

Key takeaways:

Major food allergens

Allergens are substances that trigger an immune reaction in an individual but are usually harmless to most other people. Although a person can be allergic to anything including things such as leather, coins (nickel), and apples, those are not the most common allergies. The FDA has identified nine major food allergens:

  • Crustacean shellfish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans
  • Sesame

Even a small amount of these allergens (for instance, egg wash on an eggless pastry), can cause an allergic reaction. These allergy symptoms can manifest within a few minutes to a couple of hours. Mild allergic reactions can make people uncomfortable. These include symptoms such as a tingling sensation in the mouth, itching, or swelling of lips or face. Sometimes people experience flaring up of diseases such as eczema or dermatitis.

Severe food allergies can have life-threatening symptoms. For instance, people may experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and dizziness. Respiratory symptoms such as wheezing are also common. Some patients may experience anaphylactic shock i.e., severe drop in blood pressure, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and death if there is no medical intervention. As such it is critical that food labels list all the ingredients and have information about the nine common allergens written clearly and boldly.

According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) and the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act, food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients. If the food item contains any of these nine allergens, then the manufacturers are required to label allergens in food items. You may have noticed bread or cookies with the label “Contains wheat, milk, and soy.” These labels help people who have allergies to foods that may trigger a reaction.

Advances in the food-tech industry

Traditionally, animal proteins were obtained from animals. Animal proteins are considered complete proteins as they include nine essential amino acids. Additionally, animal meat contains nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12. But given the population of our planet, obtaining animal proteins through animal farming is not sustainable.

But what if we could get these animal proteins from plants?

Enter molecular farming. This technology enables us to make genetic changes in the plants and use these modified plants to manufacture proteins that are not usually produced by plants for instance, using plants to manufacture proteins needed in certain types of vaccines.

But now, using this technology, food-tech startups are producing animal protein in plants. For instance, by adding genes from pigs or other animals to plants such as soybean, it is possible to produce soy plants that have pig protein in their beans. It is possible to develop several such options e.g., a pea plant that yields peas with beef protein.

Soybean with altered genes is now a reality. Recently a UK-based company has developed such pork-soy combination beans that will be available in the market soon. One major advantage of molecular farming technology is that human pathogens cannot grow in plants. Hence, there is a low risk of contamination when such pig soy is used. This revolutionary technology will blur the lines between animal and plant kingdoms and raise new questions related to health.

The FDA reminder letter

The growing concern around molecular farming and possible allergens needs to be addressed. The animal protein made from plants may contain secret allergens. For example, if not clearly labeled, people who are allergic to soybean may consume foods made from pig-protein soybean. This can prove fatal in some cases and consumers would expect regulatory oversight from the FDA to avoid such fatal incidences.

The FDA urged that the food manufacturers “comply with relevant legal requirements and keep materials from their plants segregated from other plants and foods to ensure that allergens are not unintentionally transferred into the food." Indeed, the manufacturers, developers, and FDA share a collective responsibility for food safety.

In a nutshell, food allergies can adversely affect health and can cause death in some cases. To avoid such accidents, the FDA requires food manufacturers to label nine major food allergens. However, secret allergens introduced by molecular farming can cause serious allergic reactions. Although in the US such food items are not yet available, the FDA has issued a letter to food manufacturers and made them aware of their responsibilities.

Since this is still a developing field, the guidance for the public is minimal. Stay tuned to our Healthnews portal as we will bring periodic updates to you about these secret allergens and food items.

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