Prepared Foods August 30, 2004 enewsletter

Israeli scientists have found a way to neutralize a sesame seed protein that causes allergies, using a technique that could eliminate allergens in milk and other common foods, Israel's leading technical institute announced.

High-frequency sound waves were used by scientists at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology to pulverize the sesame seed molecules to create an allergy-free product. However, other researchers have warned that the process could have unintended side effects.

The scientists focused on sesame, a popular Middle Eastern staple, but the same process could be used on other foods that cause allergic reactions, like milk and peanuts, said Technion professor Shmuel Yanai, who oversaw the research.

In the U.S., more than 11 million people suffer from food allergies that cause about 200 deaths annually. Also, 30,000 people require emergency treatment each year because of such allergies, according to sponsors of a U.S. bill to require clearer labeling of food products.

After identifying the allergenic epitope, a part of the protein, the Technion scientists targeted it with acoustic sound waves, using extremely high frequencies over very short periods. In 95% of the cases, the allergic qualities were completely neutralized.

The team tested the technique on rats. A group of rats that were fed regular sesame developed allergic reactions, while the second group, fed the treated sesame, showed no reactions, the Technion said.

"As far as we know, it has never been done before," Yanai said.

Yanai said the findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The actual research was carried out by Naomi Wolf of the Technion's department of food engineering and biotechnology, the university said.

Following the successful tests, Yanai said his team is looking for a food manufacturer to set up a pilot project.

However, the program faces a number of drawbacks. At the moment, the process has been successful only on sesame in a liquid or semi-liquid form, Yanai said. It also is not clear what effect the process would have on the taste and texture of the product.

"Our goal in the future is to make it work in a solid phase as well," Yanai said.

Scientists not involved in the research said the findings could have far-reaching implications for food-allergy sufferers, but also urged caution.

"The work in identifying the epitope was excellent," said professor Ram Reifen, head of the Hebrew University's School of Nutritional Science. However, Reifen said it was not clear what other effects exposure to the high-energy waves would have on the protein.

"You know it lowers the allergenicity, but you don't know what else it does," he said.

"The research is still in a very early stage," said Dr. Meir Shalit, head of the allergy unit at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. He said if the process could be translated into a real product, it would benefit millions of people who suffer from food allergies, particularly children allergic to milk.

Yanai said the team is now turning its attention to nuts and milk, and that initial experiments on milk were promising.

Sesame seeds, valued for their high protein content, are used in popular Middle Eastern dishes like tahini, hummus and halva. Levels of sesame allergies in Israel are similar to those of peanut allergy in the United States.