Novel uses of pea protein are great news for growers but may be bad news for allergy sufferers.
They’re suddenly faced with a world where it may be in unexpected places like sandwich meats and chicken strips.
Earlier this spring Dr. Elana Lavine, an Ontario-based allergist, highlighted the issue in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.
She reported a number of pediatric allergy cases that were later traced back to pea protein, including a toddler who suffered a violent allergic reaction when given dairy-free yogurt containing the ingredient.
A Winnipeg-based pediatric allergist says just what this will mean to the pea industry is uncertain. Dr. Elinor Simons says the population affected by pea allergies is small, which will no doubt play into how the issue is treated by regulators.
“It will depend upon how the placement of pea protein in products is handled,” she said. “Pea allergy is not one of the more common allergies.”
Why it matters: Pea protein isn’t a priority allergen in Canada, but do recent reports of accidental exposure and allergic reactions impact how the long-anticipated market will develop?
The allergy is related to peanut allergy, which is one of the more common, but peanuts are still widely used in many food products.
“In general, the degree of problem that presents to people is dependent upon the labelling and how clear that is, Simons said.
Most people who are allergic to peanuts will have no reaction to peas, she said, but some with peanut allergies will also be allergic to other legumes like lentils, chickpeas or peas.
“Sometimes we see someone who’s allergic to peanut and then gradually realizes that they are allergic to other things,” she said. “It would be easier for someone who eats peas regularly to discover that. The difficulty is always someone who’s allergic to peanut and maybe some of the lentils and chickpeas and doesn’t really eat peas, and so they won’t know whether or not they’re allergic.”
But the landscape of allergies, and determining whether someone has an associated pea allergy, is yet still more complicated. An allergen’s state may impact reaction severity, she said, pointing to those allergic to milk or eggs, but who can tolerate those foods when well baked. It is often the other case for peanuts, she added, as the dry roasting process seems to make the nuts more allergenic.
Peas, and vegetables in general, can also see cross-activity with pollen, she added, and those with that type of allergy will see the most risk from fresh peas.
It is still unknown whether the processing process to extract pea protein has any impact on how allergenic it is, Simons said, although a CBC report suggested that the processed pea protein may be more concentrated and therefore pose more of an allergy threat.
In fact, Simons says those questions around processing and impact on allergy threat are among the greatest she is waiting to see addressed.
“I don’t think that there are enough people with pea allergy where we can really say ‘this’ population is going to be at greatest risk,” she said.
She has not confirmed an unexpected reaction to pea protein in her own experience, she said, although she now wonders if it applies to several of her patients after reading recent coverage.
Health Canada does not list peas as a priority allergen, although Simons says there is discussion on whether to add it.
“If it becomes more common in the diet, then that may be a factor considered when the body of allergists that contributes to that decision makes a decision about that,” she said.
Julianne Curran, Pulse Canada’s vice-president of food and health, says pea protein allergies are unlikely to impact market development, given how rare the reaction is, even if Health Canada does add it as a priority allergen and requires end-users to label for it.
“It is a conversation that we want to have with Health Canada,” she said. “They have outlined a set of criteria that they consider for if they’re going to identify a food as a priority allergen and so there is a whole host of information that needs to be gathered and perhaps there needs to be further research conducted to understand the allergenicity of peas and pea ingredients.”
Curran added, however, that more cases may appear as consumption grows.
James Bozikis, Roquette’s communications head for the Americas, says the company is, “involved in research programs with world-renowned academics to continuously learn more about the allergic potential of pea protein.”
Soybeans are still the company’s greatest allergy concern, however, and Roquette points to its seed certification and traceability programs designed to avoid contamination.
“As for labelling, we strongly suggest to our customers to make the botanical origin of the protein in their recipes visible for consumers,” Bozikis said, adding that, “consumers have the right to always be informed of the presence of any potentially allergenic substances in the products they buy and use.”
The spotlight on pea protein allergy comes at an unfortunate time for Manitoba.
The provincial government is currently developing a multi-year protein strategy in an effort to boost Manitoba as a leading protein-producing province, including a focus on plant protein. The under-construction Roquette plant at Portage la Prairie has caused many to pin their hopes on peas. The French company says the plant, slated to open next year, will take 125,000 tonnes of yellow peas every year at full capacity.
“We are committed to ensuring Manitoba producers are well positioned to remain leaders in plant and animal protein development in the face of increased global demand,” Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said in an emailed statement. “Individuals are encouraged to read nutrition labels so they are aware and educated on what they are consuming, especially those with a food allergy.”
The province noted that food label regulation falls to the federal government.
Clear labelling is likely the best tool to head off accidental exposure, Simons says. In particular, she warned, companies should take care to use the words ‘pea protein,’ rather than, “a Latin word or whatever, that means the same thing but will be less understandable to someone doing a quick scan.”
Those labels, however, may not help avoid accidents outside the home if they involve foods (like pulses added to meat products) where those with allergies do not expect to find peas and may not think to ask.
Awareness, then, will become critical, both the industry and allergists argue.