Food allergies are commonplace and have a major impact on the quality of life of the consumers concerned. The economic impact in relation to the healthcare and food sectors is considerable too. All the more reason for TNO to carry out research into food allergies.
How big is the problem?
With a prevalence of around 3%, food allergies are among the most common conditions in the Western world. “In the Netherlands, there are more than 500,000 people with a food allergy. The impact of this potentially lethal condition is greater than that of many other conditions, such as diabetes mellitus, for example. Every time sufferers eat, they have to take account of their allergy, and this has a huge impact on their quality of life,” explains TNO principal scientist, Geert Houben. The economic impact of food allergies is also great, because of hospital visits and food recalls.
Food allergy-free in 2030
In recent years, knowledge about the health risks of allergens in food - the proteins responsible for allergic reactions - and the assessment and management of risks have increased enormously. TNO is world leading when it comes to analysing the health risks of allergens. “In order to limit the food allergy problem, we have to develop and implement methods for managing existing food allergies and exposure to allergens. The second objective is to prevent new allergies to develop when new foodstuffs reach the market. However, we would prefer to reach our third objective - preventing and curing all food allergies. If we pursue our present course, continuing to innovate and overcoming the remaining hurdles, then it is technically possible that the world will be rid of food allergies by 2030,” claims Houben.
To attain these three objectives, TNO is working together with international industrial partners, universities, governmental bodies and patient organizations, such as in the TNO Shared Research Program Food Allergy. A worldwide unique database is being maintained together with the American FARRP (Food Allergy Research and Resources Program). “We are taking part in, and in some cases even leading, various European and international projects. Our role, as TNO, is bringing together various parties and combining disciplines that have not previously worked together. And it has proved a great success,” says Houben. TNO has also worked in partnership with Coca-Cola for many years. “The company is one of the frontrunners and is very active in the ILSI Europe (International Life Sciences Institute), for example, which focuses on scientific progress in nutrition and other fields,” explains Houben. Stefan Ronsmans of Coca-Cola emphasizes that working in partnership is beneficial to them and to the food industry in general. “Allergens are an important area of focus for us in the food industry. Working with TNO is a pleasure and it has also given us a great many insights into the current state of affairs and opportunities for science and industry alike.”
“By combining data about the sensitivity of allergic consumers and patterns of consumption, it is now possible to draw up reference doses. That is groundbreaking”
Steps taken and challenges
TNO in collaboration with FARRP has carefully identified how sensitive people with allergies are (with a database of over 3,000 patients). “This tells us something about the threshold values for allergens and the risks associated with foodstuffs. But to be able to make a really good assessment of the risks, the quantity of the intake of an allergen has to be known and so you therefore need to know how many people eat of a particular food product. That is why we have developed a food intake database, aimed specifically at food allergy research. It also has to be possible to use models to predict how many of an allergen is in a foodstuff - after all, it is impossible to analyse every batch or package in a laboratory,” says Houben. Ronsmans says, “TNO has made it possible to quantify allergen risks. By combining data about the sensitivity of allergic consumers and patterns of consumption, it is now possible to draw up reference doses. This is groundbreaking and very important for the industry.”
The second objective - devising methods for guaranteeing the safety of new foodstuffs - has to do with the transition to sustainable food. “We all want to move to sustainable food with alternative sources of proteins,” explains Houben, “but the disadvantage of this is the likelihood that it will introduce new allergens. There is still much work to be done this area. We do not know why susceptible consumers become allergic mainly to proteins that are a strong allergen and not to other proteins. We have set up a programme for testing on this, and we are trying to develop a multi-factorial method that can predict the response of men to new proteins. After all, there are multiple factors that play a role and influence each other, such as the protein itself, but particularly how easy it is for the body to break it down, how it is absorbed and its interaction with the immune system,” Houben points out. Prioritizing allergens is an important aspect that TNO and Coca-Cola have been working on in the context of the ILSI Europe, (objectives 1 and 2). “How do you determine, from a risk-management point of view and at a population level, which allergens should be prioritized? This is a question that we have to examine in the daily reality of the market (risk management programmes, legislation), but which can also prioritize further scientific research,” believes Ronsmans.
Prevention and cure
The third objective, which is aimed at preventing and curing food allergies, is still in its early stages. Houben explains, “There are some areas that lend themselves for exploring therapy and prevention, but so far we have too little understanding of what happens if interventions are made in the immune system. To this end, we are researching the interactions between the various components of the immune system so that, in addition to assessing effectiveness, we will be able to identify safety issues and risks with regards to the side-effects of interventions,” says Houben.
Food allergy-free in 2030?
As well as these scientific challenges, there is a societal challenge. “Technically, it should be possible to have a food allergy-free world by 2030. But actually achieving this involves making choices and setting priorities. We have to make sure we keep the subject on the agenda,” concludes Houben.
Contains traces of…
“There are no clear rules on how to deal with the possibility of allergens being present in a product. At the moment, there are usually warnings such as ‘this product may contain traces of...’ on products. But in many cases these warnings show no correlation with the actual risks, and may be confusing for consumers. With our knowledge about risks and sensitivity, we have developed a quantitative guidance, together with FARRP, on when to display warnings on foodstuffs, based on an acceptable level of residual risk. This guidance has already been introduced in Australia and New Zealand. We hope that such guidance will soon be introduced in the US and Europe too, because it represents a great step forward for consumers with allergies. However, it will probably be several years before that happens,” predicts Houben. “Much remains to be done. It is important that all parties involved understand the importance of accepting and implementing a quantitative guidance for displaying warnings. This way, we can restore the credibility of these warnings in the eyes of consumers with allergies,” says Ronsmans.
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