Worried about allergens when you’re choosing an oil ingredient for your natural food product? You’re not alone. This is something that multiple departments within your company will have to weigh in on: Purchasing, R&D, QA and Marketing. They will all play a part in this discussion when you’re producing a food product.
With allergens there’s not only the science behind it, but there’s also a matter of consumer perception and legal responsibilities if anything happened. This is a complex conversation overall.
Today, I’ll try to review the science behind allergens and how they relate to oils in general. My goal is to help further your research process and discussions with colleagues as you are making some important company decisions.
What Are Allergens?
An allergen is a substance that causes an allergic reaction.
What Are The Top 8 Allergens?
Crustacean / Shellfish
How Do Allergens Relate To Oils?
If you look at the list above, soy and peanuts are listed in the top 8 of common allergens. What does this mean for soybean oil and peanut oil? They are both produced from plants that people are commonly allergic to… But is the oil itself a concerning allergen?
This conversation is more complex, because soybean oil isn’t just squeezed from a soybean plant and left in it’s unrefined (also known as crude) form. Most oils like soybean, peanut and canola undergo what is called a “refining process”. The refining purpose is used to remove any color and flavor out of the natural oil, and to keep this commodity consistent over time. However, as a result, it also removes almost all (if not absolutely all) of the allergenic material in the process.
How is this possible? It has to do with the proteins, which are the components in the oil that causes an allergic reaction to begin with.
To explain simply, the refining process removes the proteins from the oil. This means that the allergic material (protein molecules) from the peanut or the soybean has been removed, preventing allergic reactions for most individuals.
Allergenicity of Refined Vegetable Oils
To explain more, I’d like to point you to a National Institute of Health (NIH) resource. In this overview, they state:
“Several commercially important refined vegetable oils are derived from plants which are recognized as potent food allergens (e.g. peanut, soy). Full refining of oils results in the almost complete removal from oils of protein, which is responsible for allergic reactions.”
“However, it is uncertain whether the minute amounts [of protein] remaining could provoke allergic reactions in highly susceptible individuals. This has led to a vigorous debate about the safety of refined oils and specifically whether to label each oil individually because of the potential risk of allergenicity [as opposed to simply ‘vegetable oil’].“
“Peanut oil has been the most thoroughly studied. It has been shown, in well-designed studies, that refined peanut oil can be safely consumed by the vast majority of peanut-allergic individuals, whereas unrefined oil can provoke reactions in some of the same individuals….”
“… The review concludes that peanut oil, and by extrapolation other edible vegetable oils, presents no risk of provoking allergic reactions in the overwhelming majority of susceptible people.” Source
Even with crude (unrefined) oil, it would take a lot to someone who’s allergic to react to the oil itself vs. the original plant.
“Most people with peanut allergy don’t experience allergic reactions until they’ve eaten 50 to 100 milligrams of peanut protein – meaning that a person with peanut allergy would likely have to consume liters of crude peanut oil to cause an allergic reaction.” Source
That said, crude oil still contains much more of the protein than refined oil does, so it is still important to avoid crude oil if possible. When you compare crude to refined, it’s easy to see why the NIH states that refined edible oil “presents no risk of provoking allergic reactions in the overwhelming majority of susceptible people”.
In Summary For Purchasing, QA and R&D
All in all, this report on the Allergenicity of Edible Oils explains it well.
“Edible oils processed by typical US procedures are highly refined and contain no detectable protein. Because they are virtually free of allergenic protein, these oils should be safe for allergic individuals to eat. These refined oils are also used in the production of salad dressings, margarine and many other food products; therefore, these products should also be safe for allergic individuals if they do not contain other sources of allergens.“ Source
At the end of the day — because refining removes the proteins from the oil — these refined oils are virtually safe to be eaten by most people with allergens.
In Summary for Marketing and Legal
While the above information is helpful if you are a natural food business, it may also be a more complex conversation than that.
It is true that most individuals who have an allergy will not react to refined oils. However, it is not an absolute guarantee that NO individual, especially those who are highly susceptible, will not have even a small reaction to your product. So on the legal side of things, while there have been scientific studies on this, there are still no guarantees.
For your marketing department, it may be hard to explain (concisely and on your packaging) to a person who has a soy allergy, for example, that they will not be allergic to the product when they are reading soy-anything in your ingredient listing. If your consumer is not well informed themselves, many will see the word “soy” and immediately think there is a risk — and wonder why you’ve not included an allergy notice.
Because of the complexity, this also is a conversation to include your marketing and legal team on. Your company may opt to choose a different oil (like non-gmo canola) or label a soy or peanut allergen — even there isn’t a high risk — to avoid questions and issues down the road with your consumers.