When Protein is the Enemy

October 1, 2007

10 Min Read
When Protein is the Enemy

In 2007, low-carb diets may have fallen by the wayside, but protein remains a high-priority nutrient in diets centered on weight loss, athletic performance and body building. Unfortunately, for an estimated 12 million-plus Americans, consuming select proteins can be deleterious and, too often, fatal.

Allergy ABCs

The majority of such reactions to proteins can be categorized as food allergies, an immunologic response to a specific protein in a food. The body mistakenly perceives this protein (the allergen) as a threat, and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. Those having a tendency to develop allergies produce increased amounts of IgE. After the initial exposure to a specific allergen, the body reacts to future exposures by creating millions of IgE antibodies. These connect to blood cells called basophils and tissue cells called mast cells. These cells are then stimulated to release histamine, which causes an array of allergy symptoms, including itchy, watery eyes and nose, scratchy throat, rashes, hives, eczema and anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, potentially fatal, systemic allergic reaction that can involve various areas of the body. Anaphylactic shock is the most severe type of anaphylaxis and can lead to death in a matter of minutes if not immediately treated.

Only eight foods account for approximately 90% of all food-allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Food allergies have no cure; allergic individuals must simply avoid any and all forms of the food to which they are allergic. Extremely sensitive individuals must avoid any exposure to the allergen.

“Food allergy is serious, and it’s life-threatening,” says Anne Muñoz-Furlong, founder and CEO, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, Fairfax, VA. “Just one bite of the wrong food can bring on anaphylaxis. Even trace amounts can be enough to cause problems—sometimes just through skin contact, or from inhalation when food is being cooked.”

Thus, “concerns about food allergies have risen significantly in the last two years, brought on, no doubt, by increased food safety and environmental concerns,” says Barbara Katz, president, Health- Focus International, St. Petersburg, FL. The company’s recently published 2007 HealthFocus Trend Report indicates 23% of shoppers are extremely or very concerned about food allergies, up from 18% in 2005.

Proteins that affect intestines

Consuming gluten, a protein in wheat (including durum, semolina and spelt), rye, oats, barley, and related grain hybrids such as triticale and kamut, can also have a deleterious effect on those with celiac disease. However, in this situation, the protein does not interact with the body’s immune system. The small intestines of celiacs have a damaged mucosal surface, caused by an immunologically toxic reaction to the ingestion of gluten. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients and, in some cases, water and bile salts. If left untreated, damage to the small bowel can be chronic and life threatening, causing an increased risk of associated disorders—both nutritional and immune related.

Celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune intestinal disorder found in individuals who are genetically susceptible. Not that long ago, food manufacturers and restaurants barely acknowledged the gluten-free diet. But, today, the gluten-free diet is recognized by the medical community and the general public as a legitimate, healthy, delicious lifestyle.

“Gluten free, however, still ranks relatively low as a concern in the United States among the general shopper population,” says Katz. “But it’s of greater concern among the 50+ population, with 22% saying they are extremely or very concerned about it. Depending on consumer memory, which can be rather long when it comes to food safety issues, we may see growth around this concern stemming from the recent well-publicized recall of pet food products with contaminated, imported wheat gluten.”

Margie Adelman, senior vice president, NutraCea, Inc., Phoenix, points to “numerous advancements in allergen-free and gluten- free foods over the past few years, and these foods are among the fastest- growing segments in the food industry today. We attribute this progress to innovative product development and new food technologies, which have enabled manufacturers to produce such foods as delicious breads, cakes, cookies, crackers, cereals, non-dairy milk, yogurt and ice cream products that offer ‘normal’ taste and texture that are appealing to consumers.”

Allergen labeling

Food product developers need not avoid formulating with allergenic ingredients, provided they take the necessary steps to inform consumers about the allergen’s inclusion in a food. They must also prevent contamination at the manufacturing level to avoid the possible inclusion of an unlabeled allergen in a food. The Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) 2004 resulted in a law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2006, requiring the food industry to label all allergenic food ingredients. This includes spices, flavorings, certain colorings and incidental additives.

For more specifics on labeling of food allergens, visit www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/alrgact.html. Because some proteins may not be entirely obvious in specific ingredients, formulators should check with their suppliers. Often, they can provide alternatives. “We have traditionally used protein as a component for our proprietary microencapsulated beadlet technology,” says Herb Woolf, senior staff nutritionist, BASF Human Nutrition, Florham Park, NJ. “Proteins are often used in nutrient formulations for their hydrocolloidal function, which is their ability to absorb water.

“Proteins sources that have traditionally been used only comprise a few percentage of the formulated nutrient’s weight, and include those derived from dairy, soy and fish. But other formulation options include those made with gums and starches,” Woolf continues. “Based upon the use level in a formulated food, the actual amount of a suspect protein remaining in a formulated food would in fact be very small. However, for highly allergenic, sensitized individuals, even this small amount could elicit an adverse effect.”

To ensure a food is free of allergens, allergen test kits can anticipate and help eliminate potential hazards at real time or near real time, thus saving the expense and embarrassment of a recall. These test kits can be used on finished product, product contact surfaces or recycled cleaning rinse waters.

Fruit allergy facets

Some individuals experience unpleasant symptoms after eating certain fruits and vegetables. This is referred to as oral allergy syndrome (OAS), also pollen-food syndrome, and is caused by allergens such as ragweed. OAS symptoms result from a cross-reactivity reaction between allergy antibodies directed toward target pollen proteins with similar proteins found in other parts of plants. Common OAS symptoms include an itchy mouth and throat with mild swelling immediately after eating fresh fruits or vegetables. These symptoms rarely go beyond the mouth, presumably because these proteins are digested by stomach juices and do not enter the bloodstream.

Heating or digestion typically destroys the allergens responsible for OAS reactions; affected individuals can usually eat cooked, baked or canned fruits or vegetables. Ripeness can also make a difference—the riper a tomato is, the more likely it will cause an allergic reaction.

Oranges, papayas, passion-fruits, peaches, pears, persimmons, pineapples, plums and strawberries are among the most allergenic fruits.

Celiac diets and gluten free

The cause of celiac disease is unknown; it can appear at any time in a person’s life. Statistics suggest more than three million Americans are afflicted with celiac disease. This may be a gross underestimation, as it is difficult to diagnose and many cases likely go undiagnosed. The number of sufferers of celiac disease is estimated to increase worldwide by a factor of 10 during the next few years.

The only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. When gluten is removed from the diet, the small intestine starts to heal and overall health improves. Celiacs know to avoid traditional sources of gluten such as bread, pasta, cookies, etc. “Rice is naturally gluten-free, so it can be substituted for wheat, barley, rye, oats and other options,” says Anne Banville, vice president of domestic production, USA Rice Federation, Arlington, VA.

There’s a growing trend toward formulating foods that are free of gluten. Often, when food scientists think of avoiding gluten in a formulation, they think wheat flour only. However, many food ingredients contain hidden sources of gluten, and even the slightest amount in a food product can cause the celiac many discomforts. For example, some starch-based stabilizers can be wheat-based, so a celiac would need to avoid this product. Or, the stabilizer can be rice- or corn-based, and safe for a celiac. Thus, the source of a starch ingredient should be labeled, i.e., modified corn starch instead of simply modified starch. Some flavorings must also be avoided, because they are fermented with wheat.

Numerous rice bran ingredients are available to the food industry, including insoluble and soluble fractions, according to Adelman. “NutraCea developed gluten-free energy bars, rice-based beverages, whole-grain baby cereal with rice bran, meal replacement powders and dietary supplements for nutritional support of specific health concerns ranging from glucose and weight management to arthritis and gastrointestinal health,” she says.

Earlier this year, FDA proposed a rule regarding the labeling of foods as “gluten free.” The rule appears in the Federal Register, Docket No. 2005N-0279, titled “Food- Labeling: Gluten Free Labeling of Foods,” and includes a definition of the term gluten-free. Currently, no standard exists, and products may claim food is gluten-free if it has no gluten, has a limited amount of gluten, or never had gluten. FDA proposes to set the standard acceptable gluten level for products labeled “gluten-free” at no greater than 20 parts of gluten per million (ppm). More specifically, FDA proposes the term gluten-free on food labels applies only to foods free of any or all of the following: 1) prohibited grains, meaning any species of wheat, rye, barley or their hybrids; 2) ingredients derived from prohibited grains that have not been treated to remove gluten; 3) ingredients derived from prohibited grains that have been treated to remove gluten, but which results in 20 ppm or more of gluten per gram of food; and 4) 20 ppm or more of gluten per gram of food.

Developing select foods with a gluten level below 20 ppm is difficult, because gluten is very common in food sources. Many ingredients in the marketplace are not designated gluten free, so if a manufacturer cannot be assured the ingredient is gluten free, that insurance cannot be passed along to the consumer Also, because many gluten- containing ingredients are enriched grain products loaded with important vitamins and minerals, attempts to remove the gluten-containing ingredient in some foods may result in a product that is nutritionally inferior.

“Rice is also enriched, so it’s packed with 15 vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, potassium, iron, folate, zinc and magnesium—and brown rice contains selenium and is a good source of fiber,” says Banville. “This is important because celiac disease, for instance, prevents the body from absorbing nutrients properly, so rice is a good staple food for making sure celiacs get the nutrients they need. Also, rice is comprised of complex carbohydrates that are more slowly digested and provide energy that fuels the body’s physical activity.”

Jodi Engelson, senior research scientist, Cargill, Inc., Minneapolis, says “there is clearly a market opportunity for gluten-free foods. We have witnessed over a 100% increase in gluten-free products over the last seven years.”

Yet taste—or more specifically, good taste—is an issue. Wheat is easily replaced in products like sauces, but it’s more difficult in baked goods like bread and cookies. Products suffer in terms of texture and shelf life. “That’s the real challenge for a product development person,” Engelson says.

The market for allergen- and gluten-free foods is unique in that, for core consumers with diagnosed allergies and illnesses such as celiac disease, these foods are not an optional “lifestyle” choice, like purchasing, say, natural or low-fat foods; they are a virtual necessity, and can become a matter of life and death. Because they can’t afford to make casual decisions about any food, these consumers are hungry for information; there is no such thing as too much detail about product ingredients or production.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural- cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected]

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