People with food allergies can have quite severe allergic reactions and can show serious symptoms. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is unraveling how allergenicity works at cellular level. This can provide important input for predictive models, safer food processing, and development of better diagnostic tests.
Certain proteins (allergens) in food can cause allergic reactions in people. For instance, peanut or cow's milk allergies, mostly occurring in young children, are well known. Allergies are nearly always caused by proteins; this also applies to food allergies. There is a great need for methods which can predict the degree of the allergenicity of proteins. In addition, there is too little information on the characteristics which could make this kind of prediction possible.
Being able to make these predictions, for example, by performing a diagnostic test on someone with a food allergy can be very valuable in practice. In this case, the "provocation test" would no longer be necessary to determine if and how heavily someone responds to an exposure to peanuts, for example. The structure of proteins which cause food allergies can vary considerably. During digestion, one protein will remain more stable than another, and additionally, the presence of this in a food matrix can make predicting allergenicity even more complex.
Nearly all our foods are being processed, before we consume them. Often, such processing includes a heating step. Heating has all kinds of consequences for the structure of proteins, and in turn, for allergens as well, such as unfolding, aggregation, and binding to sugars via e.g. the Maillard-reaction. As a result, these structural changes have consequences for the immune system's response to such processed proteins.
During the study, the researchers will be determining the degree to which the food matrix (proteins, carbohydrates and fats), the digestive processes and various food processing methods affect the allergenicity of proteins. Proteins will be pre-processed by cooking or roasting them. Next, the digestive process will be mimicked in order to allow the allergenicity of proteins to be studied at a cellular level. This "cellular level" will be at both ends of the allergenic reaction cascade: we will analyse what the impact is on the initiation of allergic reactions as well as on the eventual clinical reaction. For example, it appears that the unfolding caused by heating leads to accelerated uptake of proteins by immune cells.
The model foods we work with are milk proteins, egg proteins, cashews and peanuts.