New allergen-free foods do little to solve food allergy problems. Food can never be guaranteed absolutely allergy-free, and allergy patients are often extremely cautious.
This is the conclusion of Dr. Margreet van Putten of the Marketing and consumer behaviour chair group, in a thesis that she defended successfully on 15 September. Van Putten based her conclusion on a literature study and discussions with patients' associations, the food industry, allergologists and consumers with a food allergy.
Novel foods, as food products developed through breeding or genetic modification are called, were heralded as a magic bullet for the one to two percent of adults and eight percent of children who are allergic to a foodstuff. Fairly common allergies include nut allergies and sensitivity to certain fruits such as apples and kiwis. Cross-breeding, genetic modification and radiation with gamma rays can change the allergens so that they no longer cause an allergic reaction. An example is the Santana apple developed at Wageningen UR. This is a hypoallergenic apple that can safely be eaten by people with a mild form of apple allergy.
However, it is precisely people with a food allergy who are not at ease with the new food products. 'They are right', thinks van Putten. 'Miniscule traces of food can set off an acute allergic reaction that can sometimes even be fatal.' The problem with novel foods, according to van Putten, lies in this extreme sensitivity of allergy patients. Food can never be 100 percent allergen-free. 'Because of this extreme sensitivity, hypoallergenic foods can only help allergy patients with a mild allergy', explains van Putten. 'There's no such thing as 100 percent allergen-free.'
But even if a product is allergen-free, if it's going to be any use to people with a food allergy, it needs to be substituted for other products throughout the food chain. A costly business, especially if you bear in mind that the relatively small number of food allergy patients.
'Novel foods have clearly not been able to fulfil the promise made on their behalf to people with a food allergy', Van Putten concludes. 'If I had a whole sack of money, I wouldn't spend it on research into hypoallergenic foods but on medicine against food allergies.