…and the real purpose of the new “hypoallergenic” peanut
When news of the novel USDA approved hypoallergenic peanut spread through the social media, I and many other FaceBook parents of peanut allergic children reacted with horror.
Despite the media filtered promise that this new peanut would reduce chances of a reaction and might even, through the early introduction of low doses, prevent the allergy, they weren’t buying it. It didn’t matter that Dr. Oz had posted that this was “good news for peanut allergy sufferers”. Parents were adamant. “I still wouldn’t play with my daughter’s life.” “No way!” “Russian roulette!”
A closer read in fact revealed the opposite to be the scientific case. Horticulture expert at U. of Georgia Peggy Ozias-Akins confirmed, “Given the number of allergenic proteins in peanuts, I doubt that developing an allergen-free peanut is realistic.” The parents’ instincts were right. So why the dangling carrot?
The peanut industry is nervous. Peanut is not just in sandwiches or served on planes. Peanut oil that is refined to reduce sensitizing proteins is used in vitamin capsules, baby formula, disguised as vegetable oil in many foods. In fact, the FDA’s move to reduce trans fats recently paved the way for increased use of refined peanut oil because it is a healthy alternative. This peanut oil is everywhere, except on the label.
The FDA acknowledges the existence of trace proteins in refined peanut oil. But with a history of use, the oil appears to be safe (GRAS, generally recognized as safe) says the FDA and is exempt from food labeling. This decision is fully supported by the WHO.
But things are changing. A new study by Scott Sicherer, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, NY, has revealed an “alarming” and unexplained increase in the number of peanut/nut allergic children to 2.1%, or 1.6 million. Given this mysterious epidemic, the very valuable GRAS status for refined peanut oil is poised to change along with its labeling exemptions.
If you saw peanut oil as an ingredient, and you had a life threatening peanut allergy, would you buy the product?
Indeed, between 1993 and 1999, at the start of the allergy epidemic, the peanut snack market fell from 14.4% to 12.%. But peanut food use was in decline less from allergic concerns than from perceived worries over “bad” fats according to a 2008 MA thesis by Emmanuel Foko. And so, when news emerged that peanuts actually contained “good” fats, sales rallied not just to individual consumers but also to manufacturers.
In short, peanut food sales are up. So why is the Georgia Peanut Council fighting so hard to keep peanuts on airplanes? A $20 million annual loss is marginal within a multi-billion dollar industry.
It is an industry liable to the winds of policy and government regulation. Is this a slippery slope?
If the threat of peanut to society is perceived to be so bad as to ban it from planes, next might be trains, public spaces. And if the threat to millions forces the FDA to revoke the GRAS status of refined peanut oil and demand labeling, this would turn consumers away from it in foods. The European Food Safety Authority in 2004 investigated the safety of this oil concluding that “fully refined peanut oil” in foods could indeed cause allergic reactions. It should be labeled.
But the likely consumer backlash to finding refined peanut oil in their food might pale in comparison to the response of parents when they learn that the oil is also a common vaccine ingredient.
Peanut oil made its debut in injected meds at the end of WWII. An army doctor invented a method for prolonging levels of penicillin in the blood by mixing the drug with refined peanut oil. As the body metabolized the oil, the drug was slowly released. Doctors quickly recognized that the oil had sensitized some people and moved to better refine it. Peanut oil thus gained a history of use so that by the 1960s, peanut oil was a simple choice for Merck to include in its new aluminum based vaccine additive, Adjuvant 65-4. Since then, peanut oil has been a common ingredient in vaccines.
Labeling the oil on vaccine package inserts has also been debated. While it makes sense to warn consumers of sensitizing ingredients, corporate law and ethical guidelines have been at odds for years over whether consumers really need to know. Proprietary vaccine formulae are protected from Freedom of Information provisions in the UK, US, Canada. New guidelines from the European Medicines Agency recommend that consumers have a right to know – and yet, there continues to be no legal obligation for a maker to reveal this information. And why would they? The US government says trace proteins in peanut oil are safe.
And so, now enters the protein-reduced peanut that Dr. Oz tells viewers is good news. Its arrival follows Dr. Sicherer’s alarm and a rumor that 5% of Americans are now peanut allergic. Saving the day is the USDA and U. of Georgia to solve our worries with a hypoallergenic peanut. They already know that for those allergic, buying GMO peanut butter would be like buying a bullet-resistant vest. But the new peanut is not for these non-consumers.
The GMO reduced-protein peanut it is intended to maintain the threatened GRAS status and the labeling exemptions for refined peanut oil. Refining an already low protein peanut would allow it to pass new standards of safety so that they can continue to use the peanut oil without informing consumers. Here’s the big picture: the peanut industry has backed itself into a corner and without these government protections, it and the vaccine makers would be met by a blow to consumer confidence such as they have never seen.