Are plant-based meat alternatives heralding new allergen risks?

The rise in popularity of meat-substitute products may introduce higher consumption of concentrated forms of pea- and other plant-protein isolates than in traditional diets, and this may cause allergic reactions even in people who have never had problems eating these plant proteins in the past.

An example is the Beyond Burger which looks and tastes like beef but is made of plants and contains no animal products. One of the main ingredients is pea-protein isolate. Media reports indicate some people with peanut allergy have experienced allergic symptoms after eating these products and suggest the similarity of the pea and peanut proteins is capable of triggering a cross-reaction.

Beyond Meat, the makers of the Beyond Burger, are said to have responded to this potential risk by adding a voluntary allergen statement to their product packaging. While listing ‘pea protein isolate’ as an ingredient, an additional statement reads: “People with severe allergies to legumes like peanuts should be cautious when introducing pea protein into their diet because of the possibility of a pea allergy.”

Mycoprotein is another alternative to animal protein. Made from the naturally occurring fungus Fusarium venenatum, mycoprotein has a meat-like texture. It is the main ingredient of Quorn® that is sold in at least 17 countries around the world and has been available for over 30 years. As it is a protein, it has the potential to cause allergic reactions in sensitized consumers.

Researchers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest last year published a report which included an analysis of 312 self-reported allergic reactions to mycoprotein. They suggested “the acceptance in the food supply of this nonessential ingredient deserves reconsideration”. However, a recent paper cites a systematic evidence review that indicates the incidence of allergic reactions to mycoprotein remains exceptionally low.

References:

  1. Settembre, J. 2019. “Beyond Meat’s burger could pose health risks to people with peanut allergies — even though it doesn’t contain peanuts”. marketwatch.com  (accessed 19 June 2019)
  2. Jacobson & De Porter, 2018. “Self-reported adverse reactions associated with mycoprotein (Quorn-brand) containing foods”. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Vol. 120 (6) Pp. 626–630. DOI. 10.1016/j.anai.2018.03.020
  3. Finnigan et al. 2019. “Mycoprotein: The Future of Nutritious Nonmeat Protein, a Symposium Review”. Current Developments in Nutrition, Vol 3 (6). DOI: 10.1093/cdn/nzz021