• Alternative Proteins and Challenges Related to Allergenicity  

  • Responding to Allergen Challenges  

Alternative Proteins and Challenges Related to Allergenicity

Plant-based Alternatives  

In the last few years, plant-based meats have become commonplace in the food industry with a reported 27% increase in consumption. More recently, plant-based dairy and seafood products are being developed through the use of Textured Vegetable Proteins (TVP) to emulate the sensorial aspects of meat, dairy, and seafood. These products are often made with legume proteins that are known to cause allergic reactions in some individuals.

One type of legume, soy, has been widely used and is characterized as a known allergen declared on food products.  Moreover, with the increased use of other legumes such as pea, lentil, redgram, mung, blackgram, red kidney bean, and chickpea, new reports of new allergenicity are emerging. 

Allergen testing is also impacted. ELISA techniques for monitoring the presence of soy, for example, have shown cross-reactivity with pea and mung bean proteins in some manufacturers’ kits depending on the antibodies used. Canola protein (rapeseed) is also growing in use and has been reported to contain allergenic proteins.

With ELISA testing, there is cross-reactivity with related Brassica species when testing for mustard allergens. Mustard is not currently listed as an allergen in the US, but it is on the list in Canada and the EU. Next-generation plant-based meats are reported to have the potential to utilize coconut fats to emulate marbling in meats; coconut is currently identified as a tree nut allergen (Inform June 2021, vol. 32).  

Insect Proteins  

Insects are an alternate protein source currently receiving a great deal of attention in the EU and North America, particularly regarding pet food.  Although insects have been consumed in Asian and African countries for centuries, the food safety of insects has not been studied extensively. Some people have or may develop food allergies to certain species of insects.

The EFSA (European  Food Safety Authority) Panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods, and Food Allergens (NDA) provided an opinion on the introduction of the yellow mealworm as a novel food. It has been widely reported that some insect proteins (e.g. mealworms) show cross allergenicity with shrimps and house dust mites.

Although there is no requirement currently to label insect allergens, the manufacturer of an ELISA test kit used for the detection of crustacean allergens concluded in their publication that the kit also detects insect proteins. The EFSA has noted possible sensitization to mealworm in individuals with no allergy to shrimp.

Additionally, the EFSA indicated it may be necessary to consider what the insect is fed and the possibility of carryover of common allergic foods. Overall, it appears that the use of insect proteins may complicate allergen risk assessments and testing.  

Single Cell-Proteins

Single Cell-proteins include Microalgae, Fungi, and Bacteria. Microalgae have been reported to cause allergic reactions and the protein which causes it has been identified. A fungal protein (Mycoprotein) sold under a popular trademark name is known to have its major food safety risk as allergens. This mycoprotein resulted from a search for alternative protein from starch fermenting fungi.

Although there are benefits to utilizing alternative proteins, with novel foods come novel food challenges, particularly regarding food safety. For example, fungal proteins, as well as meatless chicken burgers, can trigger adverse reactions reported in individuals with a history of mold allergies. 

Cultured Meat/Seafood 

There is a lack of research on the safety of cultured meats/plates of seafood. The primary emphasis has been on improving production processes. In late 2020, Singapore’s Food Agency was the first to approve cell-based or cultured meat for a chicken product that should be introduced this year. A recent report (Inform 2021 vol. 32) listed 7 companies along with their progress toward commercializing a cell-based “fish” product. Allergenicity does not seem to be a major concern at this point, although the growth medium may be a consideration. 

Responding to the Allergen Challenge  

Monitoring allergens for food safety is of growing importance, in particular as food products change and new allergens of concern are identified. The effectiveness of any program is improved by considering the following when testing:  

  • Consider the matrix to be tested  
  • Provide ingredients for review to help anticipate issues with cross-reactivity/inhibition.  
  • Appropriate test kit/test method to be chosen depending on the ingredients and the processing.  
  • Method verification ongoing: New matrices should be spiked with a known  amount of allergen to determine recovery  
  • Complementary methods: A second kit/method may be used to confirm results 
  • Ensure “best” sensitivity (LOQ) requirements are met to meet any intended  claims (e.g. “free”)  

What can Mérieux NutriSciences do for you?

At Mérieux Nutrisciences, our laboratories continue to prioritize the development of methods like MS for protein detection and characterization, to ensure effective risk assessments for allergenicity in Novel Foods. We offer qualitative and/or quantitative testing services for big 9 allergens in all food matrices, including raw materials and finished products, utilizing a range of technologies. Contact our experts today to learn more.

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