5 Fundamentals of Allergen Analysis #1: Allergen sources and allergen load

Food allergies have been on the rise worldwide in recent decades, in particular in western countries. This has brought along increasing concerns about food safety that have translated into stricter controls and regulations by official regulatory bodies. These controls demand that industries in the food sector incorporate appropriate allergen management plans that ensure either that food products do not contain allergens that are not part of the ingredient list, or, in some cases, that they are contained below defined concentrations. Allergen analysis, then, becomes an integral part of any allergen management plan.

In this series of articles, we tackle the most common issues and problems encountered by those conducting allergen analysis. In this first installment, we will focus on the allergens we should test for and their concentrations.

Allergen sources and allergen load

One of the first steps on allergen management is to identify the allergens you would expect to find in a given production run or environment. With literally dozens of allergens that must be declared on product labels, it would not only be impractical but a waste of resources to test for all of them if there is no concrete reason to expect to find them. This requires a thorough knowledge of the products: allergens might not only be main ingredients but might also be unintentionally added, for example, through processing aids or composite ingredients. Also, less direct routes of contamination should be taken into account, like how the ingredients have been processed, transported, stored or even grown (in the case of raw materials like crops). 

Once the “candidates” have been identified, it is necessary to analyze their relevance. In many cases, it is not necessary to manage all the allergens in one ingredient individually, but it is enough to focus on the most stable one or the one with the highest concentration. In order to do this, it is important to consider what the allergen load of the ingredient is. Because food allergens are almost exclusively proteins, the allergen load of an ingredient is related to the protein content of that ingredient and, in particular, to the amount of protein coming from the allergen source. Thus, ingredients rich in protein represent a higher danger than ingredients with low protein content, even if both derive from an allergenic source. A good example of this are soy protein isolate (SPI) and soy lecithin. Both ingredients come from an allergen source, namely soybeans. However, while the first is almost exclusively composed of proteins (usually, at least 80% of SPI is made up of proteins), the second is mainly composed of glycerophospholipids and would contain proteins only as traces.

Powders? Pastes? Particulates? Know the form of your allergenic ingredient.

A second important point to consider is the form of the ingredient: is it a powder, a paste, a liquid? Allergens present in the same form can usually be managed and monitored together, while extra controls and testing may be required for allergens present in different forms. Consider, for example, the cleaning procedures: pastes and particulates are usually more difficult to get rid of than liquids. One practical way to deal with this is to manage the component with the highest allergen load in each ingredient form. All these considerations help us estimate the final concentration of each allergen in our sample.

Now that we have identified the critical ingredients and allergens in the product, it is easier to define the measures to manage it. We are then ready for the next step: testing the product or production line to confirm that our measures were effective and the allergen has been eliminated. 

In #2 of this series, we’ll have a closer look at product and production line testing.

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