By M. Zakir Sabry, MD
I love peanuts—salted, plain, spiced, honey-glazed—you name it. I love them all. I have peanut butter in my fridge, mixed peanuts in the jar, and dark chocolate peanut bars in my kitchen drawer. It’s all fine, right? Yes and no. Yes, because peanuts are a great source of protein and folic acid, and no, because growing numbers of children are allergic to peanuts, including my two younger sons.
When I was growing up, this was never an issue. To curb Larry David’s enthusiasm, “Who ever heard of [a] peanut allergy before? It’s all made up.” The problem is that it is not made up. An entire generation of people is in constant agony due to this curse. And it is on the rise. According to a study by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), peanut allergies tripled in the U.S. between 1997 and 2010.
No one knows why this is so. However, common sense tells me that our extreme efforts to raise children in a clean and sterile environment, the overuse of antibiotics, the use of genetically modified food, and over-indulgence in processed foods may all be causative factors.
Most, if not all, of us are aware of some of these facts. Then, why am I writing this? Because there is a very dark side to this peanut allergy phenomenon. Under unfavorable circumstances, exposure to peanuts or peanut-based food can prove to be fatal. This hits very close to home. Just last month, a vivacious young lady attended a friend’s wedding in New Jersey. During the reception, she consumed one or two pieces of a spring roll which, unbeknownst to her, were fried in peanut oil.
Unsure of what was happening, she went to the ladies room to induce vomiting to make herself feel better. As sheer luck would have it, it was time for the bride and groom to enter the reception hall. Every guest was preoccupied with the happy event and she was left to her own devices. It’s a heart-breaking story that doesn’t end well. The only saving grace is that she now provides others a normal life by giving them integral parts of her own body. Now, that’s a true human being; she not only touched many during her own time on Mother Earth, but now lives amongst and inside of them.
So, is there a cure? The answer is no. Peanut allergies tend to be lifelong, although studies suggest that a lucky 20% will eventually outgrow their allergy. The reaction to peanut exposure has been tempered in multiple studies through the use of oral immunotherapy. These clinical trials use controlled and incremental amounts of peanut protein under the tongue. Many participants have a favorable response. Maternal exposure to peanuts during pregnancy may also induce more tolerance in newborns.
However, the fact remains that preventive measures are still best. In that regard, restaurants should disclose all allergens in their food to patrons. Patrons should inquire and report their food allergies to servers. Most importantly, any household with children possessing nut allergies should be super vigilant. As I wrote this article, it became clear that having peanuts in a jar in a household with allergic children is akin to having an unprotected loaded gun. My peanut jar is gone.
Even though corporate greed overshadows the EpiPen business, it is essential in our everyday life now. As we leave home for any social occasion, along with my wallet, prescription eyeglasses, and a functioning GPS in the car, we carry EpiPens in my wife’s purse.