March 22, 2013 -- European scientists and researchers are working to develop a hypo-allergenic apple that could provide relief to millions and provide a new frontier for genetically modified food.
While apples rarely cause the same intense allergic reaction as more common allergens like shellfish or peanuts, they often cause irritation for those allergic to birch pollen and can result in irritation or blistering on the tongue or lips.
Researchers, who were part of the European ISAFRUIT collective, were able to develop apples that had less allergens through gene "silencing." By turning off genes responsible for creating certain proteins, the scientists were able to eliminate some of the most problematic proteins.
Dr. René Smulders, an associate editor of the Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology and a manager at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which participated in the ISAFRUIT project, says designing a product with the consumer in mind could help with public's perception of genetically modified foods and open new doors in the market.
"Most genetically modified foods are catered to the needs of farmers. That's not something that consumers appreciate," said Smulders. "With these apples you would clearly see n advantage to your health."
Although the ISAFRUIT project concluded in 2010, scientists at Wageningen University are waiting to see if the plants that were developed will end up flowering into healthy trees. It takes an apple tree approximately five years to start yielding fruit according to Smulders.
However, not all researchers find genetic modification to be the answer. Dr. Alessandro Botton, a plant physiologist at the Department of Agronomy, Food, Natural Resources, Animals and Environment in the University of Padua in northern Italy, worked as a plant physiologist on the ISAFRUIT project to unravel the apple's genetic markers. However, in the years since, Botton has taken a slightly different tactic to develop a hypo-allergenic apple.
Botton is currently working on the AGER Project to identify naturally occurring hypo-allergenic proteins in order to find a way to breed different apple varieties into a hypo-allergenic variety of apples.
"We decided to go this 'natural route,' which had, and still has, a great unexplored potential," Botton told ABCNews.com. "Why should we devote efforts and resources to genetically modify apples to achieve something that we may already have?"
By being able to find these genetic markers, the scientists can then breed the plants through traditional methods to have fewer and fewer allergens.
However, Smulders says one possible benefit of creating a genetically modified variety of apple with certain irritating genes "silenced" is that it might provide a faster option for developing hypo-allergenic varieties than through traditional means. It can take up to 20 years to develop a new apple variety with no guarantee it would have reduced allergens.
Patty Lovera, assistant director for the food watchdog group Food and Water Watch, says a central concern with genetically modified food is potential consequences that can arise from changing genetic sequences which could result in unexpected allergic reactions or decreased nutritional value.
"It's not as simple as you cut out this one piece and the allergies are gone," said Lovera. "We're also concerned about that there are other traits that you didn't intend to put in there."
Genetically modified foods have been controversial in both Europe and the United States, with oversight non-profit groups such as Food and Water Watch concerned that these foods can cause unexpected illness or health problems after being modified. While the FDA does not require genetically modified foods to be labeled, last week Whole Foods announced they would add labels to genetically modified foods. There are approximately multiple bills pending in different U.S. state legislatures that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled. In the European Union genetically modified foods are required to be labeled.
In spite of these concerns, scientists have continued to create new food products by splicing together proteins and genes that have resulted in products as diverse as fast-growing salmon with genetic material from eels to heartier soy bean crops.
While scientists work to develop hypo-allergenic foods, there is a chance even if they eliminate problematic proteins through genetic modification or traditional farming methods they could still cause allergic reactions. Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the Department for Food Science at the University of Illinois, says that the scientists will have to be careful to test their final products for unexpected allergens. Even if they get rid of the main proteins that cause allergic reactions, customers could develop allergies to other formerly safe proteins and researchers could end up back at the drawing board.
"You don't want to mislead people, there's no such thing as a hypoallergenic apple," said Chassy. "Someone can come along and be allergic to another protein."
Editors Note: A previous version of this article miscast the current work of Dr. Alessandro Botton. He is now researching naturally-occurring hypo-allergenic proteins, not genetically modified food.