Peanuts: Friend or Foe?

The incidents of serious peanut allergies have steadily been rising over the last decade. The British Anaphylaxis Campaign has even estimated that the rates of serious peanut allergies have more than tripled in the last ten years. Although most child healthcare experts recommend waiting until a child is at least three-years-old before introducing peanuts to their diet, the increase in food production that involves peanuts has made this advice difficult to adhere to.

What Is An Allergy?
An allergic reaction occurs when a person's body overreacts to a stimulant, like a particular food or dust, and produces a large quantity of antihistamines. Common food allergy symptoms include hives, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, eczema, wheezing, difficulty breathing, lowered blood pressure, itchiness or tightening of the throat, and itching or swelling of the lips, mouth or tongue.

Why Peanuts?
While there are many serious food allergies out there, peanuts have proven themselves to be one of the worst. What differentiates a peanut allergy from a food allergy is the fact that it is much easier to accidentally ingest a product containing peanuts. While allergies to other food items, like shellfish and tree nuts can produce similar serious allergy reactions, it is not as common to prepare foods with these products.

While no one is exactly sure as to just why the rates of peanut allergies have grown so quickly in recent years, making it one the top food allergies in the world, there are many possible explanations. The most obvious reason is the fact that numerous food companies have started producing more and more items with peanuts. This means that children are increasingly becoming exposed to peanuts at a younger age without parents even realizing it. In fact, in Canada it is estimated that 80% of children have eaten a peanut product by their first birthday, while an American study showed that every child who had a peanut allergy and was involved in the study had eaten a peanut product by their second birthday.

Other experts have pointed to the fact that North Americans like their peanuts dry-roasted, a method of production which many believe boosts the allergen potential in peanuts. Some experts also suggest that the Western World's obsession with being "germ-free" could also be a culprit in the rising numbers of allergies. Since eliminating germs gives the immune system little to react to, it ends up overreacting to substances that would otherwise not be dangerous.

School Bans
People with serious peanut allergies often go into anaphylactic shock after consuming peanut products. However, consuming only a trace of amount of peanuts can also bring on this potentially fatal reaction. Using the same cutlery to make a sandwich or preparing food on a surface that had peanuts on it earlier can be enough to bring on a reaction in people who are especially sensitive to peanuts. Even just smelling the fumes from peanuts or peanut butter can be enough to cause an asthma attack in some or nausea in others.

Because peanuts are an easy and cheap form of protein, peanut and peanut butter have become staples in many North American diets, especially for school-aged children. In an effort to keep schools safe for all children, many school boards have implemented policies that either ban or seriously limit the consumption of peanut products by their students. While some parents may feel that this is a bit of an overreaction, others argue that it is a necessary step to prevent their child from having a potentially fatal reaction. It can take very little to produce a fatal reaction in children with peanut allergies.

While removing or limiting peanuts in school is important, educating children on peanut and other food allergies is also essential. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children to tease those with an allergy by chasing them around with peanuts. Some children will even take a child's epipen kit as a prank. When a child does this, even if it is meant in fun, he is endangering the life of a classmate. Children need to understand that serious allergies are not a laughing matter.

Helping To Prevent A Reaction
Avoiding peanuts is not as easy as it seems. While there are obviously some products that contain peanuts, like peanut butter, many other products have hidden sources of peanuts. Manufacturers also do not help the situation by using unclear language on their labeling and text that isn't always easy to read. Here are some tips to help you avoid an allergic reaction:

  • Peanuts are not a nut but a legume. As a result, about 5% of people with a peanut allergy will also have an allergy to other legumes, like soya beans or chickpeas. If an allergy to other legumes is known, it is probably a good idea to avoid most legumes.
  • While few people with a peanut allergy are actually allergic to tree nuts, it is still a good idea to eat other nuts with caution. Many tree nuts are prepared with peanuts or peanut oil thereby making them unsafe for consumption by people with peanut allergies.
  • Never eat mixed nuts that contain peanuts, even if you pick out the peanuts.
  • Avoid artificial nuts. Artificial nuts are often peanuts that have been deflavored and then reflavored with another nut, like pecans or almonds.
  • Avoid products that are made with "ground nuts." This often means peanuts.
  • Avoid cold pressed, expelled, or extruded peanut oil. Also, products containing "arachis oil" should be avoided. Arachis oil is another name for peanut oil. However, pure peanut oil does not seem to cause a reaction in people with a peanut allergy.
  • Sunflower seeds are often produced alongside peanuts. It may be best to avoid these.
  • Be wary of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, African and Mexican foods as these often contain peanuts or are prepared with peanut oil.
  • Avoid chocolate and cookies unless you are absolutely certain that they have been produced completely separate from peanuts.
  • Always read the list of ingredients. Peanut products can appear in places you may not suspect.
  • Always wash hands and/or utensils to remove any peanut residue or materials. Hand sanitizers have been found to be ineffective at removing peanut residues.

Finding A Cure
While many scientists and doctors are trying to find a solution to peanut allergies, they have yet to find a cure. Some experts have begun to develop a variety of treatments that may help prevent or lessen the severity of a peanut allergy reaction, but nothing is even close to being on the market anytime soon. For now, the best line of defense for a peanut allergy sufferer is to avoid all peanut products and to carry an epipen with her at all times. It is also important that all parents and caregivers are aware of how to administer an epipen, even if their own children are not affected by a severe allergy.