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.
The final step for Mattison and his team will be to ensure that the modified nuts taste just as good as the unaltered version. Right now, using the compound causes an odd aftertaste, and we can all agree that if you feel like a nut, you should have one that tastes like a nut.