Putting food allergens to the test

Veteran food scientist Steve L. Taylor is leading cutting-edge research efforts that could dramatically reduce severe food allergy reactions.

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

A birthday party where every child can enjoy the cake and ice cream. Restaurant meals that don’t end in an emergency room visit. Halloween trick-or-treating without an EpiPen. This vision of the future is what motivates Steve L. Taylor, a food scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a leader in food allergy research.

In fact, Taylor says, the food supply in the United States and many other developed countries has never been safer for people with serious food allergies, thanks to clearer labeling, increased vigilance and better risk assessment. Yet while Taylor says he’s cautiously optimistic, he believes the food industry and public health agencies can do more for the millions of people for whom food is a ticking time bomb.

Evolution of allergy awareness

Food allergies aren’t a new phenomenon, although it can feel that way as they become ever more common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of food allergies in children rose steeply from 3.4 percent in 1997–1999 to 5.1 percent in 2009–2011. Although scientists are still trying to determine the cause of that rise, the increased prevalence has forced the public and the food industry to take notice. That awareness helped lead to a law, enacted in 2006, requiring manufacturers to state in plain language whether a product contains any of the eight most common food allergens—a development that has had a positive impact on allergic consumers, he says.

We’re going to have a lot of people to feed by 2050, and we’ll always be resource limited. The key in food safety is to focus attention on the stuff that really makes a difference.”
—Steve Taylor

Taylor, who trained as a biochemist, says that when he first started studying allergens from a food science perspective, it was a somewhat lonely field. So early on, while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he reached out to allergists in the medical school. In 1981, those colleagues encouraged Taylor to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, where he found himself the only food scientist in a sea of physicians. “At a four-day meeting, there were only five presentations on food allergy—and I gave two of them,” he recalls.

At that time, he says, most allergists weren’t focused on treating food allergies. “The practical advice was that if peanuts make you sick, don’t eat peanuts,” he says.

A turning point came in 1995, Taylor says, when a popular ice cream brand was recalled for containing undeclared peanuts. “It was the first really big [allergen-related] recall,” Taylor says, and it made the industry sit up and take notice. Taylor, who was known for his work testing genetically engineered soybeans for potential allergens, soon was fielding calls from food companies interested in testing their products for traces of peanuts. At the time, though, the only tests available required blood serum from people with peanut allergies—an expensive and impractical method.

“There weren’t any tools in the toolkit,” Taylor says. “That’s when industry got very interested in the development of those tools.” In response, he co-founded the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, an industry-funded consortium that supports research on food allergies, and which he still co-directs.

Taylor and his colleagues worked to develop more practical test methods, including those that rely on animal rather than human blood serum. As a result, food manufacturers now have test methods for most of the commonly allergenic foods, including peanut, milk, egg and soy, Taylor says. Food companies use these tests in a variety of ways: to test whether individual ingredients contain undeclared allergens, whether processing equipment has been sufficiently cleaned, and whether any traces of allergens have made their way into the finished product.

Taylor predicts that food allergen tests will become increasingly more convenient as the tests are improved, allowing manufacturers to get instantaneous results from on-site tests, rather than the current method of shipping samples off to a lab and waiting hours or days for the findings.

Safety thresholds for food allergens

Just as important as improved testing, says Taylor, is a project he has been focusing on for the past several years: determining thresholds for food allergens. A speck of peanut in a pint of ice cream might be a health hazard to someone with a peanut allergy, he notes, but what about half a speck? “How much of an allergen is too much?” he asks.

So far, public health agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration haven’t offered any guidance on this subject, says Taylor. And that has led to vague warnings that offer more confusion than clarity. In a not-yet-published study, Taylor analyzed a variety of packaged cookies with advisory warnings for peanuts and found that fewer than 10 percent actually contained peanuts. Setting clear safety thresholds for common allergens could help consumers make more informed choices, since they could trust that foods would be labeled only if they contained a dangerous amount of an allergen.

Drawing that line in the sand could offer another benefit, says Taylor, because as detection methods get better, there’s a risk that food producers may get hung up on eliminating trivial amounts of allergens that don’t actually pose a health hazard. Once clear safety thresholds are established, he says, “industry will have the opportunity to focus on the errors that would actually cause human illness.”

“We’re going to have a lot of people to feed by 2050, and we’ll always be resource limited,” he adds. “The key in food safety is to focus attention on the stuff that really makes a difference.”

Unraveling the mysteries of allergies

Meanwhile, scientists are also learning more about the proteins that trigger allergies in the first place. Peanut allergies, for instance, aren’t all created equal. Eleven different peanut proteins can trigger an allergic reaction, Taylor says, and an individual might be allergic to just one or to several of those proteins. Now, blood tests can pinpoint exactly which protein or proteins a person is allergic to.

“We’re increasingly getting a handle on that,” Taylor says. “In 2050, we’ll have many more markers” for identifying which proteins in foods trigger allergic reactions. Someday, food scientists may even be able to genetically engineer foods such as peanuts to eliminate the problem proteins—though given public resistance to genetically modified foods, he adds, he’s not sure it will ever become reality.

In the end, however, Taylor believes food allergies will become less important because of medical advances. Scientists are beginning to understand more about how and when to introduce infants to high-risk foods such as peanuts in order to decrease the risk of developing allergies, for instance. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2015 found that feeding peanuts to babies before their first birthdays significantly decreased the risk that they would develop a peanut allergy. And medical researchers are making progress in immunotherapy treatments that could one day cure food allergies, or at least minimize their severity.

Nevertheless, Taylor isn’t anticipating that such developments will force him—or his younger food science colleagues—out of a job anytime soon. “We know so much more about allergies” than we did even a few decades ago, he says. “But we have a long way to get to a cure.”

Kirsten Weir

Kirsten Weir is a freelance science writer based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American Mind, U.S. News & World Report and many others.

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