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Allergic to Nuts? Cashews Might Be in Your Future

August 11, 2014

Photo credit: Diak Uis/StockFood

For the nut-allergic among you who long for a taste of almond butter or cashew brittle, delicious relief may soon be on its way.

A team of researchers have found that treating cashews with sodium sulfite, a non-toxic compound found in nature, changes the shape of some proteins known to trigger allergic reactions, which by the same token lessens the likelihood of severe allergic reactions. 

The findings, which scientists presented at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco, could be huge news for consumers with other types of allergies. ”One of our goals is to apply our knowledge from the cashew experiments to other tree nuts and to peanuts,” said researcher Chris Mattison in a press release. Allergy-free nuts could even hit supermarket shelves in just a few years, The Telegraph suggests.

But so far, Mattison and his team have only examined cashew cell proteins in petri dishes; the next step is to repeat the same experiments with whole nuts—like the ones found in giant tubs at Costco.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, told us that he’s excited by the prospect of allergy-free cashews, but worries about their real-life applications. 

"The problem with this technology is that at least for many years, even if it’s successful, there’s going to be a mix of cashews that are allergenic and cashews that are not," Gurian-Sherman said. That could lead to major confusion for allergy sufferers in restaurant settings, where they might be accidentally served regular cashews instead of an allergy-free variety.

Gurian-Sherman has a big reason to be concerned: His daughter suffers from a similar allergy to walnuts and pecans. “She just avoids them entirely,” and might continue to do so even if allergy-free versions existed.

Even so, Gurian-Sherman was cautiously optimistic about the findings. But he stressed that the food industry should keep careful watch over how, if successfully created, allergy-free nuts are produced and marketed.

"Given that this is food, I think that we need to be more cautious than if it was something like a lamp stand," he said. Point taken! No lamp stand snacks for you.