What’s Up With All the Peanut Allergies?

My daughter Brontë recently started attending preschool. It was high time for her to go (she really wants to make friends with other children), but for me, it was bittersweet. It’s the end of an era: the World of Just Mommy and Brontë.

It means she won’t stay a little girl forever. Someday she will learn to drive, go off to college, and move out of the house…

We are very close, so I knew it could be a tough transition for her. The night before her first day, I lovingly packed her My Little Pony backpack with a coat, extra socks, and a change of clothes. In the morning, I gave her a special treat (Frozen cereal. Anything Elsa is gold) and explained to her on the drive over that mommy would be dropping her off to play, but not to be scared, because mommy would come back in a little while to pick her up.

She looks terrified, right?
She looks terrified, right?

When we arrived, I squeezed her tiny warm hand as we crossed the parking lot to the front door. She was wide-eyed. I knelt down to hug and kiss her as I mentally prepared myself for an emotional flood. This was the first time she would be left by herself in a new place. She might grab me around the legs, sobbing, and beg me not to leave her. I would reassure her, again and again, promising her that this would be so much fun and I would definitely always come back for her.

Instead, she popped her My Little Pony backpack on a nearby hook, like a pro, then casually said “Bye moms!” before tearing off into the building.

The transition went, umm, rather smoothly.

I, on the other hand, have much to learn. This is a unique,  play-based preschool where one parent works a shift every week. I love the concept of parental participation, but it means a steep learning-curve about a bunch of new policies and procedures. My shift is on Wednesday, and I’m supposed to bring kid and parent snacks every month.

These impending snack duties made me anxious. How much is enough? How organic should it be? Can it contain gluten? Are graham crackers alright, or do they contain too much sugar? What if it’s messy? Will other parents be mad?

I’m the new kid on the block and don’t want to jack up my reputation with an embarrassing snack faux-pas, so on my first Wednesday, I was curious to see what the snack-bringer was dishing up.

It was quite impressive: hot crockpot chili (it’s finally getting chilly in California), with tortilla chips and cheddar cheese. She told me she had also made corn muffins, but couldn’t bring them in after reading on the box that the mix was prepared in a facility that also processes tree nuts. Last year, five of the kids had severe nut allergies.

My daughter demonstrates her mastery of backpack-hook technology
My daughter demonstrates her mastery of backpack-hook technology

Uh-oh… nut allergies. Not only can’t we bring in any food containing nuts, but we can’t bring in anything prepared with ingredients that might have once made friends with a nut. Non-nut ingredients can’t even run in the same social circles without tarnishing their reputations.

I don’t mean to make light of severe allergies, of course. Allergies are a serious issue with potentially tragic consequences. But what confounds me is how nut allergies have become so prevalent.

I was a kid during the 1980’s. Back then, if you tossed a handful of rocks into a cafeteria and hit five random kids, I guarantee that at least one of them would have been eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the time. Another one would’ve been bouncing off the walls while stuffing his face with Willy Wonka candy.

That Willy Wonka kid would be diagnosed with ADHD, nowadays, just like that hyper kid who used to sit behind me whose butt never actually touched his seat. He would just hover over it, trying to sit down, but shaking with too much energy to manage it,  like a trapped Roomba smacking repeatedly against a corner of the room.

ADHD diagnoses have also exploded in the past twenty years, but it’s possible that we just didn’t know what to call it, in those days, when a kid didn’t pay attention (besides “spazz”). Perhaps we have a better handle on behavioral patterns and potential treatments now than in my youth.

Back then, the principal would give each class a brief speech every year, during which he would introduce his spanking paddle and warn us about how our butts might get better acquainted with it if we chose to misbehave.

Not sure if anyone’s butt ever met Mr. Paddle, though. The warning may have been enough.

Whether a child is choosing to misbehave, or simply has abnormal brain chemistry, can be a difficult call. While experts continue to debate the relative merits of punishment vs. medication to treat problem behavior, allergies seem more straightforward: a bad physical reaction to a peanut is an objective fact. A positive test result is clear.

Still, you can’t bring a peanut anywhere near most schools anymore, in case peanut dust hits the air stream, whereas about half the brown lunch bags at my elementary school contained PB&J’s on any given day.

Once, when I was a child, I heard about a kid with a severe peanut allergy who died after taking a bite of something containing peanuts. I remembered it forever, mostly because it sounded so incredibly strange. Allergic to peanuts? How was that possible?

I never knew that kid, or knew anyone who knew him. It was always a friend-of-a-friend story. For all I knew, it was an urban legend, like the razor blades stuck into apples in some kid’s trick-or-treat bag.

And now, there are five kids with severe allergies at a small preschool?

The problem is now so prevalent that I was warned, by medical experts, not to eat any nuts during pregnancy, in case it triggered nut allergies. It bothered me at the time, since nuts are incredibly nutritious and I was used to eating almond butter every day.

After much internal debate, I decided to ignore the advice.

My family has no history of nut allergies, so I figured it wasn’t a big risk. Plus, the list of foods we are supposed to avoid when pregnant is very long. Depending on the source, it includes rare meat, dairy, soft cheeses, fruit juice, sushi, homemade desserts, pre-stuffed poultry, lunchmeat, fish, meat spreads, vegetables, sprouts, salads, smoked meat, refrigerated meat, nuts, and herbal tea.

The list of banned foods so long, in fact, that I was more concerned with not getting beneficial nutrients than about potential contamination. Following such strict guidelines means you won’t be left with much to eat beyond saltine crackers (which probably have too much salt). We don’t even know how well vitamin supplements work, so I cast my lot in the “food variety” bucket, rather than playing it safe.

pregnantnutsTurns out, I may have been onto something. A study following more than 11,000 pregnant women found that mothers who ate tree nuts during pregnancy actually reduced the incidence of allergies. In this CNN report, the study’s lead author suggests that early exposure helps children build up a tolerance.

This makes intuitive sense to me. Allergies happen when your immune system attacks something it doesn’t recognize, so wouldn’t you increase the risk of allergies through lack of exposure? How could introducing a food “trigger” an allergy in someone who wasn’t genetically predisposed?

A recent article in Time suggests exposure peanuts might even cure peanut allergies. Another study showed that predisposed children fitted with a “peanut patch” increased their tolerance to peanuts ten-fold.

A sanitized environment isn’t always the answer. As I mentioned in a previous post (“Americans are Too Damn Clean“), studies show that children exposed to a little contamination (such as the mold and plant particles on a family pet) tend to have lower rates of allergies and asthma than those kept in more disinfected environments.

Is it possible that our well-intended avoidance of tree nuts is what’s responsible for the allergy explosion? Are other countries experiencing a similar tree nut allergy phenomenon?

It’s such a difficult issue. No one wants to be responsible for a preventable death, especially of a child. But on the other hand, is our vigilance actually making things worse?

One thought on “What’s Up With All the Peanut Allergies?

  1. American’s are too damn clean. From what I have seen and read it isn’t as much of a problem in 3rd world countries. Of course that could be because deaths don’t get reported???


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