Scientists with the USDA are working to create a peanut with a significantly lower risk for allergic reaction. So far, this quest for an allergy-free peanut, which uses conventional breeding techniques rather than genetic modification, has resulted in a breed that’s missing some of the compounds known to cause allergic reactions. The hope is to produce a peanut lacking all or most of the major allergens. But is taking the allergens out of peanuts really the answer to the country’s growing nut allergy problem?

A recently released study from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York surveyed food allergies of the general US population three times over an 11 year period. The results suggest that tree nut and peanut allergies have tripled since 1997 and now between one and two percent of US children are allergic. In 2008, researchers polled parents in 5,800 households and found that 1.4 percent of kids under 18 had a peanut allergy. Another similar study from McGill University in Montreal found comparable allergy rates.

Even though allergy rates of one to two percent are low, they appear to be on the rise and scientists don’t know why. So while a the prospect of an allergy-free peanut is promising, the real issue at hand may be the increase in the allergies.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine researcher Scot Sicherer believes processing may be to blame for the rising allergy rates and roasted peanuts may be a bigger trigger. Others believe nut allergies could be related to our hyper-clean lifestyles including the use of antibacterial soaps that reduce exposure to germs early on in life, possibly affecting the immune system.

Reactions range from mild rashes to severe, life-threatening anaphylactic shock, so for peanut allergy sufferers, an allergy-free option may sound like a good idea–especially since some reactions may occur just from being around those eating nut products.

In the past, scientists have worked on creating allergy-free genetically modified peanuts, but as concern grows over the safety of GMO foods, we’re happy to see USDA scientists using conventional breeding methods to find an answer.

Researchers studied more than 900 types of peanuts to find genetic mutations showing little or no allergens. They hope to breed a variety that will reduce both the severity and development of peanut allergies.

Image: Stevendepolo