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Identify food allergens thanks to DNA. The new method developed by Barilla and FEM2-Ambiente

Thanks to the collaboration between Barilla and FEM2-Ambiente, a new analysis methodology has been developed capable of quickly and accurately tracking the presence of allergens inside food products and identifying possible contaminations along the production chain. The new technique is based on genetic analysis and supports the procedures currently used to determine the presence of allergens in food products.

In the area of public health and food safety, allergies and intolerances are topics of great interest. Consumers are particularly sensitive to these aspects and pay a lot of attention to what they buy. Those who deal with restaurants, on the other hand, must be able to protect customers who have particular needs fed by giving them precise information.

For this reason, in 2011 the European Commission introduced the EU regulation 1169/2011 concerning the adequate information on the contained allergens that must be reported on the labels of food products.

To guarantee consumers safe products, companies in the agri-food sector, such as Barilla, use a series of extremely accurate controls capable of excluding the presence of these allergens. However, in some cases these controls are not able to discriminate between allergenic and non-allergenic species, returning cases of false positivity. This aspect does not affect the safety of the product sold but is linked to economic problems, sustainability and food waste, since large quantities of material, which could be used, is erroneously discarded. This is, for example, the case of mustard, an allergen inserted by the European Union among the 14 substances that most commonly cause allergies or intolerances in the population of the member states and the subject of the study in question.

The name mustard refers to some species of plants belonging to the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae family, some of which contain allergens. To date, the analyzes used are based on the ELISA technique and are able to identify allergens but, at the same time, return positive results even only in the presence of rapeseed (Brassica napus). This plant, common in Europe, belongs to the Brassicaceae family but does not contain the allergen.

Through the analytical procedure developed in the FEM2-Ambiente laboratories it is instead possible to identify precisely, without cases of false positivity, and with high sensitivity, detecting small quantities, only the species considered allergenic: Sinapis alba, Brassica nigra and Brassica juncea.

In order to be able to define the analytical protocol and thus be able to guarantee precise results quickly, various tests were performed on samples of wheat flour (Triticum aestivum) suitably contaminated or not with different species of Brassicaceae.

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With a first genetic analysis, it is possible to trace inside the mixture the traits of DNA common to all Brassicaceae, in the absence of which, it is possible to exclude the presence of any species, including allergenic ones.

In the case of positivity, genetic traits of the allergenic species S. alba are sought, whose DNA is more different from the others. The possible presence of S. alba will be sufficient to determine the presence of allergens in the product. In the event of a negative outcome, a third analysis is performed to trace the presence of B. nigra and B. juncea DNA. Excluding the presence of these species too, the product can be considered free of mustard allergens.

Currently, this analysis can be carried out only in properly equipped laboratories but a future perspective is to make it usable even by unequipped realities, using, for example, rapid systems with colourimetric surveys and easy interpretation of the results.

Frigerio, J., Pellesi, R., Mezzasalma, V., De Mattia, F., Galimberti, A., Lambertini, F., Suman M., Zanardi S., Leporati A. and Labra, M. (2019). Development of a DNA Barcoding-Like Approach to Detect Mustard Allergens in Wheat Flours. Genes, 10(3), 234.

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