Food allergies
 More people are avoiding certain food items because of medical conditions.

This is the first in a three-part series examining industry efforts to develop safer foods for those with allergies. Read Part 2 here. 

KANSAS CITY — As the number of affected people, especially children, increases, one could say the food industry has entered an age of allergens. More people are avoiding certain food items because of medical conditions. The trend has researchers seeking solutions, or ways to make such foods safer for those with allergies. They are studying reactive proteins in wheat and peanuts and even introducing allergenic food to infants.

Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), McLean, Va. The potentially deadly disease affects 1 in every 13 children under 18 years of age in the United States, and the economic cost of children’s food allergies is nearly $25 billion per year, according to FARE. Food allergies among children increased by about 50% between 1997 and 2011, according to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

Child eating peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Millions of children are affected by peanut allergies.

Millions of parents know the dangers of peanut allergies that affect their children. Alrgn Bio, Greensboro, N.C., is developing a post-harvest process designed to neutralize allergenic proteins in peanuts. While people with peanut allergies still may not be able to eat the peanuts, the peanuts would be safer, or less likely to cause a hospital stay because of accidental digestion.

New research also is showing that exposing infants to allergen-containing foods might make it less likely they will acquire allergenic conditions later in life. Before Brands, Menlo Park, Calif., is developing edible products that use the company’s Early Adaptive Tolerance blend of whole food proteins and vitamin D to help provide immune system training. The products are designed to be incorporated into the diet of infants about 6 months of age.

Gluten-free retail bread
People with celiac disease must avoid bread or other food with gluten-containing grains.

People with celiac disease, meanwhile, must avoid bread or other food with gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye, barley or triticale. About 1% of the U.S. population has celiac disease, according to Beyond Celiac, Ambler, Pa.

Researchers in both Manhattan, Kas., and Madrid, Spain, are exploring the reactive proteins in wheat varieties, hoping their discoveries one day might lead to wheat varieties that are safe for people with celiac disease to eat.