U.S. researchers claim they have found a way to treat peanuts so they are safe for consumption by people who are allergic, but at least one Canadian immunology expert says it’s too early to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of the enzyme-based treatment.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University developed the treatment, which involves soaking roasted peanuts in a food-based “enzymatic solution” commonly used in food processing.

The result, according to researchers, is the same look and taste of roasted peanuts. In addition, the researchers say that unlike other methods of eliminating peanut allergens, their approach doesn’t require chemicals or irradiation, and uses commonly available food-processing equipment.

Now, the university has moved closer to getting what they call hypoallergenic peanut products to market. The university recently announced it has signed a licensing agreement for the patented process with Xemerge, a Toronto-based firm that commercializes emerging technologies in food and agriculture.

In a statement, Johnny Rodrigues, Xemerge’s chief commercialization officer, said the process is one of the “best technologies” in food and nutrition the company has seen.

“It checks all the boxes: non-GMO, patented, human clinical data, does not change physical characteristics of the peanut along with maintaining the nutrition and functionality needed, ready for industry integration from processing and manufacturing to consumer products,” Rodrigues said.

Researchers say the treatment reduces two key allergen triggers: “Ara h 1” to undetectable levels, and “Ara h 2” by up to 98 per cent. The researcher who helped develop the process, Dr. Jianmei Yu said in a statement that the treated peanuts can also be used in immunotherapy.

“Under a doctor’s supervision, the hypoallergenic peanuts can build up a patient’s resistance to the allergens,” Yu said.

Peanut allergies are one of the most common allergies in children and adults. Those with a sensitivity to peanuts can develop anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction, almost immediately after ingesting extremely small amounts of product containing peanuts. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue, vomiting, diarrhea, and rashes. In some cases, it can lead to death.

According to Anaphylaxis Canada, approximately two in 100 Canadian children are affected by a peanut allergy.

McMaster University allergist and clinical immunologist Susan Waserman says while she’s pleased this type of research is being conducted, it is “far from proving this sort of peanut is safe for peanut-allergic individuals.”

Waserman said peanuts are very complex, and contain other proteins that can possibly set off an allergenic reaction.

“(The researchers) only mention two of the peanut proteins, but peanuts contain many more proteins and they may be associated with allergy as well, so we’re far from removing all the relevant allergenic proteins in this type of preparation,” Waserman said in an interview Monday on CTV’s News Channel.

And, while the researchers say some human clinical trials involving skin-prick tests have demonstrated the treatment’s effectiveness, Waserman said she believes it will need to undergo far more rigorous testing.

“People have varying degrees of peanut allergy,” Waserman said. “What it’s going to come down to is large clinical trials feeding people with peanut allergy of all degrees of severity, this particular peanut and observing them for their reactions.”

In the university statement, researchers say they are continuing to refine the process by testing the effectiveness of additional food-grade enzymes.