North Carolina Researchers Study Foods to Fight Allergens and More



In 2005, when one of her students at North Carolina A&T State University started researching the use of peanut flour to develop a new kind of veggie burger, Dr. Jianmei Yu had an idea: What if you could use the same kind of process to reduce, or maybe even eliminate, the peanut allergens that cause problems for 3 million people in the U.S.?

Cautious Optimism for Allergy-Free Peanuts

Yu, a food and nutrition scientist, and her supervisor, Dr. Mohamed Ahmedna, began fermenting peanut flour, then the kernels, or seeds. For two years, they experimented by soaking the kernels in enzymes to break down the offensive proteins. Then funding for the project ran out. “It did reduce the allergen content in the peanuts and the peanut flour,” Yu says. “But it caused a lot of undesirable changes. The flavor was not acceptable, and the color was not acceptable either. So we had to think about other ways.”

When the study resumed in 2010, thanks to grants from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, Yu found that soaking the shelled, peeled peanuts in enzymes worked better than fermentation. Some of the protein allergens were more stubborn than others, though; Yu was only able to reduce one of them by 82 percent. But she removed 98 percent of another allergen from the nuts, and 100 percent of a third. The patented process has been licensed to Xemerge, a Canadian firm that commercializes emerging technologies.

North Carolina A&T research

Other researchers across the Southeast are experimenting with different processes to purge allergens from peanuts. And some are trying to breed a genetically engineered product that would already be allergy-free when harvested.

Contrary to what some people think, the peanut plant flowers above the ground, while the fruit grows below. They don’t grow on trees, like walnuts or pecans, nor as part of a root, like potatoes. Farmers generally plant the seeds after the last frost in April. North Carolina ranks fifth in peanut production in the U.S., with 81,000 acres harvested in 2013, according to Virginia-Carolinas Peanut Promotions, a marketing organization for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which grow about 90 percent of the country’s large cocktail-type peanuts.

Bob Sutter, CEO of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association, is cautiously hopeful that an “allergy-free” peanut will someday make its debut. “The implications would be very positive in that we’d be able to produce – not grow but produce – a finished product that someone who had a peanut allergy could eat and not be worried about having a reaction,” he says. “This would not be something that would be, in my mind, a mass-produced item. It is going to be a specialty product.”

Regardless of which scientific group comes up with the best solution, Yu says, it will be a while before people with allergies are able to purchase safe-to-eat peanuts in stores. “No matter the pre-harvest or post-harvest approach to trying to reduce the allergens in peanuts,” she says, “we need to balance the safety of the peanut with the nutritional value and the sensory properties – the appearance, the taste, the flavor. That’s the thing we have to consider.”

Ginger Joins the Fight Against Cancer

Another researcher at NC A&T is working on an important food-based treatment of a different kind. For many years, Dr. Shengmin Sang has been interested in the healing properties of natural foods. Since joining the university in 2010, he has explored the possible medicinal benefits of ginger, a pungent spice primarily grown in Asia that is sometimes used as a remedy for nausea.

In his most recent studies at the NC A&T Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies at Kannapolis, Sang, the lead scientist for functional foods, attached gingerol, a compound found in ginger, to aspirin to see how they would work together when applied to colon- and lung-cancer cells in a petri dish.

Sometimes the human body responds differently when two compounds are chemically bound to each other rather than ingested separately, says Dr. Laura Collins, director of intellectual property development for NC A&T. “And he found that, based on the cell lines he had in his lab, he was seeing a therapeutic effect in cancer calls,” Collins notes. “He was able to preferentially kill cancer cells over non-cancerous cells.” The ginger may also lessen the adverse side effects of aspirin, which can irritate the stomach lining.

As with the peanut-allergy studies, there is still much work to be done to determine if the newly patented ginger-aspirin compounds can effectively fight cancer in human patients. Sarisa, a pharmaceutical company, has licensed the patents with an eye toward studying similar natural compounds.

“The hope would be that because these are compounds that our bodies don’t see as toxic, they won’t be as bad for us as some of the chemotherapy therapeutics that we’re familiar with,” Collins says. “Cancer is horrible, but the side effects of some of the cancer drugs are really detrimental to quality of life. So the hope is to make a less toxic but effective treatment.”

– Nancy Henderson

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