More than 19 million people in the US alone have a problem that has led to changes everywhere from school lunchrooms to the coach cabins of airplanes: the dreaded nut allergy. But a solution could be on the way, thanks to molecular biologist Christopher Mattison and his research team at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
They’re using a compound made of sodium sulfite—a common food-world preservative—to reverse the reaction caused when an allergic person comes in contact with nuts, nut dust or even nut air (yes, even nut air). On contact, a nut-sensitive person’s immune system releases an antibody (immunoglobulin E) that latches on to whatever form of nut they’ve been exposed to, triggering an EpiPen-worthy reaction.
Mattison has had some preliminary success in modifying nut proteins with a combination of heat and sodium sulfite. To date, the tests have just been run on cashew extract, but plans are in the works to focus on making whole cashews hypoallergenic.