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Milk peptides could have role in prevention of food allergies

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By Jim Cornall+

Last updated on 16-Mar-2017 at 16:14 GMT2017-03-16T16:14:19Z

Food for Health Ireland has identified bioactive milk peptides that may have potential for treatment of allergies. Pic: ©iStock/luchschen
Food for Health Ireland has identified bioactive milk peptides that may have potential for treatment of allergies. Pic: ©iStock/luchschen

Milk-derived products may help with the prevention of food allergies, researchers in Ireland say.

Through an ‘intelligent milk mining’ program and an extensive bioassay screening, scientists at Food for Health Ireland (FHI) have identified a number of peptides from milk that are bioactive, that is they have an effect on systems in the body. 

By combining the needs of industry, with the demands of the consumer and the capabilities of its research teams, FHI conducts extensive research in vitro and in vivo in animals and humans to ascertain in which biological process they are effective and to what extent.

The target areas, identified by the industry partners in the FHI consortium are: Elderly & Athletes, Obese & Diabetics, Healthy Cheeses and Infants, including those infants affected by cow’s milk protein allergy.

The rise of allergies

The last 40 years has seen a dramatic rise in allergic diseases such as asthma, eczema and hay fever, particularly in the Western World. 

Along with these allergies has come an increase in food-related allergies. 

Today, almost every classroom in Ireland and worldwide, now has a child with a need to avoid milk, eggs or nuts.  Food allergies occur when the immune system becomes ‘confused.’ 

Instead of ignoring harmless food protein, it triggers a reaction that leads to the release of the chemical histamine, which causes the classic allergy symptoms; hives and swelling, which are manageable in a routine context.

However, a more severe reaction, anaphylaxis, may be life threatening.  Approximately 90% of food-related allergy reactions come from eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. 

Milk allergies

In Ireland, milk allergies are twice as common as egg allergies and three times as common as peanut allergies.  The main treatment strategy for most food allergies is based on allergen avoidance, which is particularly challenging for cow’s milk, as it forms the basis for many products, and infant nutrition.

Cow’s milk is an ideal protein source as it has all nine amino acids and so FHI says it is important to enable more children to consume it, at the appropriate time in their lifespan, without developing an allergy to it.  

The fact that children are not born with milk allergy is very encouraging and suggests that there may be ways to prevent it. 

Researchers have known for a long time that children are not born allergic to things; children do not inherit a specific allergy, but rather a genetic tendency to develop allergic disease. 

Preventing milk allergies

Breast milk is the gold standard for the growing infant but still 0.5-1% of breast-fed babies develop a cow’s milk allergy. 

As such, there has been a push for industry to produce new food products or ingredients that are capable of improving infant health within the context of food allergy.  These ingredients are referred to as ‘bioactives’ as they are known to be active within the body. 

Given Ireland’s position as a leading dairy producer, FHI research is studying bioactives in dairy products that are capable of improving or preventing cow’s milk allergy in infants.

FHI notes that milk-derived bioactives have been reported to possess a variety of biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertensive and anti-cancer activities. In many cases, these milk-derived bioactives are incorporated as ingredients in functional foods, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals. 

This current progress in the identification of bioactive milk peptides (in particular bioactive peptides with anti-inflammatory activity) is a growing research field. 

While the most common treatment of food allergy is complete avoidance, there are some pharmacological treatments available. Current pharmacological treatments of inflammation of inflammatory diseases, however, are costly and may also be associated with adverse side effects. 

Milk-derived solutions

Therefore, food-derived milk peptides with anti-inflammatory activity could be used as a new alternative for the treatment and management of inflammatory diseases. 

FHI is developing new tools to assess bioactive peptides like anti-inflammatory milk-derived peptides in human relevant systems. 

Researchers at FHI say that it is possible to directly assess how these anti-inflammatory functionals foods act on human cells without having to do tests in human volunteers. 

This approach is easier and cheaper than doing a phase I or a phase II clinical trial, and it is hoped this will be of real value to nutrition companies, including infant formula manufacturers, as these new tools would strongly increase the predictability of success in advance of investment in costly intervention trials. 

The use of milk-derived peptides with health-promoting activities may pave the way for a better outcome for food allergic individuals, the FHI researchers say.

About FHI

Food for Health Ireland (FHI) is a research consortium created in 2006 when representatives from the Irish dairy industry joined with Enterprise Ireland, the government agency in Ireland responsible for supporting Irish business, to explore the possibility of collaborating on studying the role of milk in improving public health.  

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