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Pioneering study to investigate factors affecting how much peanut is safe to eat

17 May 2013
An allergy expert at Addenbrooke’s is leading a ground-breaking study which will, for the first time, identify how much peanut will cause an allergic reaction in the UK population.

The study will also establish whether exercise or stress make people more likely to react to peanut.

Dr Andrew Clark, allergy consultant at Addenbrooke’s, part of Cambridge University Hospitals, is the chief investigator on the TRACE study, which has been commissioned by the Food Standards Agency.

During manufacturing, non-peanut products may be contaminated by peanut residue from food made on the same machinery. Food manufacturers generally use ‘may contain nuts’ warnings because they can’t be sure what level of accidental peanut contamination is safe. People can find this type of labelling unhelpful, because it is not based on scientific evidence.

The three-year clinical study aims to find out exactly how much peanut will cause an allergic reaction and how sensitivity to peanut is altered by external factors including exercise and stress. This will help improve ‘may contain traces…’ type labelling, making it easier for people to decide which foods are safe to eat. It could also be a blueprint for a whole range of other studies on nuts and other foodstuffs.

In the UK there are about 200-400,000 peanut allergic people and approximately 1 in 50 children have the condition.

Dr Clark, and his colleagues Dr Robert Boyle and Professor Steven Durham from Imperial College, Dr Isabel Skypala from Royal Brompton Hospital, along with Professor Clare Mills from the University of Manchester, are looking for people with a peanut allergy to participate over a period of a year. The researchers will invite around 100 peanut-allergic people from a cross-section of the population to undergo ‘challenges’ under varying conditions to find out how much peanut causes a reaction.

The focus area of the £1.2 million study is on exercise and stress – in this case stress caused by sleep deprivation, the two external factors thought to influence allergic thresholds.

Dr Clark said:

“This study is the first of its kind in the UK, and globally, to find what external factors influence whether someone has an allergic reaction and to find out the amount of peanut that is safe for the population to consume, even after they have exercised or when they are stressed. It will not only bring reassurance to the thousands of people who are allergic to peanuts but offers a blueprint for improving food labelling for a whole variety of food.

“Addenbrooke’s is one of the leading centres for allergy research, especially on peanut allergy, and we are delighted to have been successful in winning the tender to conduct this ground-breaking study that will have wide implications for research into food allergies and for the whole of the food industry.”

Food Standards Agency head of food allergens Sue Hattersley said:

“This important study will inform food allergen labelling and improve advice to consumers to help them better manage their allergy.”

Dr Skypala said: “This research will really be beneficial to the adults we see in our award-winning, dedicated food allergy clinic at Royal Brompton. Our Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit carries out innovative research into allergies so Royal Brompton is extremely well equipped to carry out this study.”

Lynne Regent, Anaphylaxis Campaign CEO, said: “We're delighted to be involved with this very exciting study. Labelling is a major concern for anyone living with severe food allergy. The study will help to inform the food industry and have a positive impact upon the lives of food allergic individuals.”

Men and women between the ages of 18-45 are eligible to register. Participants will receive up to £800 for attending eight sessions at one of the two sites for the study, Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge or the Royal Brompton in London. 

The final results of the study will be published in the summer of 2016.