Some bad stats led to a nation-wide paranoia about peanut and other allegedly common food allergies. Here's the truth.
"In my day, we didn't have all these food allergies or pea-nut allergies, and if we did, we didn't care. Sure, your face would swell up and turn beet red and your windpipe would constrict until you'd make a wheezing sound like an Edsel with a tank full of bad gas. Then you'd have to get a big syringe full of epinephrine jammed into your erratically beating heart, and by God, you liked it!" – Old man talking about food allergies.
Anyone who's dismissive of food allergies nowadays no doubt comes off sounding like the codger above, but if you look at the evidence and the stats, you start to wonder if a lot of food allergies are just food paranoia run amok.
Everyone in Lake Wobegone Up and Died?
A few years ago, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimated that 30,000 Americans get hauled off to emergency rooms every year from allergic food reactions and that 150 to 200 of them ultimately die.
Trouble is, these numbers were based on wildly unrealistic extrapolations of a study of people in rural Minnesota, where, over a period of 5 years, 133 of them were treated for "food anaphylaxis," which, by definition, can mean anything from an itchy mouth to going into shock.
However, only 9 of the 133 had to be hospitalized. One died, but it was attributed to exercise instead of food allergies.
The FAAN used this study to come up with the 30,000 number cited above. The trouble is, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention only reports about 12 deaths a year from food allergies.
Probably as a result of crappy stats, the American Academy of Pediatrics ended up specifically demonizing peanuts and schools across the country ended up banning them, as did Southwest Airlines (as recently as last summer). All this fear mongering led to a nation of neurotic children who can't walk into a grocery store or restaurant without being fearful of being attacked by the peanut Babadook.
Fictional Food Allergies
Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern U., headed up a team of researchers that found that most food allergies are a lot like the Babadook – fictional.
After conducting interviews with 40,000 adults, they found that 1 in 10 adults had a food allergy (which extrapolates out to over 26 million people). However, they also found that 1 in 5 think they have a food allergy of some kind but haven't experienced any of the symptoms associated with such an allergy.
That means a couple of things: Yeah, food allergies are pretty common, but also that millions of people who think they're allergic to peanuts, shellfish, milk, wheat, and any number of other suspect foods are delusional.
Of course, they might just be confusing food allergies with food intolerance, which is when your stomach gets angried up from some food. Food intolerances might just make you gassy and force you to plan excursions around the availability of restrooms, but true food allergies could kill you.
The lesson here is that you shouldn't self-diagnose alleged food allergies. Doing so can result in avoiding certain foods for no reason, in addition to being labeled as persnickety and being excluded from a lot of dinner parties. If you think you have a food allergy, visit a specialist and get it confirmed.
Come On Baby, Don't Fear the Peanut
Terrorists should forget about anthrax or sarin. If they want to scare the bejesus out of everybody, they should just pop a paper bag full of peanut dust and watch the parents go apoplectic.
But allergists and pediatrics say that the fear is unfounded. Dr. Matthew Greenhawt, associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, explains it this way:
"One of the more common misperceptions we deal with is this concern that peanut dust will somehow aerosolize. Look, if you have a peanut allergy, you absolutely can fly and do it safely. I see too many families that often don't go on vacation because they're scared to fly. It's robbing them of the opportunity to live their lives."
Build Bullet Proof – And Peanut Proof – Kids
While there's no way of knowing for sure what causes all these food allergies (the real ones, at least), it could very well be from overly protective parents shielding their kids from some or all of the most commonly implicated foods. In fact, those mothers who routinely expose their kids to potentially allergic foods – out of wisdom or maybe negligent indifference – end up having kids who aren't a mess.
As a result of this revelation, there are now new recommendations on how to desensitize highest risk infants (those with severe eczema and/or egg allergy), at least to peanuts. Parents are simply instructed to introduce peanuts to them, albeit slowly, between 4-6 months of age.
If you're an adult who recently developed a food allergy, you're kind of screwed. However, those of you who are allergic to a particular fruit of vegetable might be able to get around the problem by cooking the offending food, which changes the protein (food allergens are almost always proteins) so that the immune system is hoodwinked into not recognizing them.
- Gupta, Ruchi, et al. "Prevalence and Severity of Food Allergies Among US Adults," JAMA Network, Allergy, January 4, 2019.