Scientists working on behalf of the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) have developed a test that could mark a breakthrough in detecting peanuts in processed products and make a real difference for people who are allergic to peanuts.

Approximately one in 200 people in the UK are allergic to peanuts, and evidence suggests that this figure is increasing. For these people, eating the wrong food can make them seriously ill and every year approximately 10 deaths are caused by anaphylaxis due to food allergies. There is no cure for food allergies and the only option for those affected is to avoid any food products containing the ingredient that causes an allergic reaction.

New research funded by the FSA suggests that it is now possible to test for extremely small amounts of peanut in food products. The test is so sensitive that it can detect traces of peanut as tiny as one part in 10 million and can distinguish peanuts from other types of nuts, even within processed products. This means that in the future manufacturers should be able to say for certain if their product contains even a few parts per million of peanut.

At the moment, manufacturers are often unsure whether or not their products actually contain allergens as a result of contamination from another production line, or through contamination of raw ingredients. Because of this uncertainty, they use phrases on the products, such as ‘may contain traces of nuts’, to warn those people with allergies.

Dr Andrew Wadge, acting director of food safety policy at the Food Standards Agency, said: “This new test is a small but important step forward in our work to protect people who are affected by food allergy. Further research is needed to explore whether the test can be adapted to detect other common food allergens. However it is hoped that the work could lead to the development of a process that food businesses will be able to use in their production methods.”

The test, known as PCR, works by detecting peanut DNA in food products. The procedure was developed by scientists at the Central Science Laboratory in York as part of the FSA’s food intolerance research programme. During the research, the test was tried out on a small number of food products found in sale on shops such as biscuits, cakes, chocolate and sausage.

Further research and development of the PCR test will now be required to determine if it can be used as a routine commercial test by food manufacturers and to see if it can be used in all types of food.