Peanut Allergies Not the Epidemic Americans Might Think

    July 26, 2013
    Sean Patterson
    Comments are off for this post.

The shift from the customary airplane packets of peanuts to off-brand Chex mix was made in part to protect those with peanut allergies. Throughout the 90s, advocacy groups and stories about peanut allergy attacks led to a greater awareness of the phenomenon. Now, peanuts are banned from some schools and day care centers across the U.S., and some ballparks provide peanut-free seating sections.

Miranda Waggoner, a researcher at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, this week published an article titled “Parsing the peanut panic: The social life of a contested food allergy epidemic.” The article, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, examines how peanut allergies became perceived as an “epidemic” while other allergies did not.

“While eight foods account for over 90 percent of food allergy reactions, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, the peanut allergy has arguably received the largest share of medical and social attention,” wrote Waggoner. “One physician has written that the same number of people die each year from peanut allergies as from lightning strikes, yet the perception of peanut allergy risk has invaded the common social spaces we all inhabit – airlines, day cares and schools.”

Though peanut allergies themselves can be severe, they are also quite rare. Waggoner cites reports that show around 1% of the U.S. population has a peanut allergy. Though the cause of peanut allergies is currently unknown, researchers are now using genetic testing to find one.

Waggoner cites increased awareness as one of the reasons peanut allergies have become so well-known. Before 1980, she states, peanut allergies were “rarely” mentioned in the media, and few statistics on the allergy were collected before the 90s. She also mentions that the “mundane” nature of peanuts may be a factor in the attention the allergy receives.

“This was part of a broader concern about food risks, changing perceptions of food production, as well as changes in the way we think about child risk,” said Waggoner. “If you ask adults about peanut allergies when they were in school, most of them will say it wasn’t an issue. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were a staple, healthy snack. It’s the classic American kid snack.

“The fact that this sort of mundane food is under attack is really a potent moment for us as a society.”

  • Dave

    I’m a frequent flyer and twice in the past month the nice flight attendant will announce that they will not be serving peanuts because one person on the plane has a peanut allergy. But yet that person has to navigate through the airport passing by restaurants and bars that serve peanuts and peanut products. I understand that the airplane is an enclosed space but the air is hepa filtered and refreshed with outside air. It makes me wonder if they are over-blowing their situation. It’s happened twice in the last month and never happened before in the 15 years of heavy air travel I have done – certainly there must have been someone with this condition on my flights.

    • Janice

      What I do not understand is why the minority (1-5%) of the population gets to dictate what the majority gets to eat, see, read, etc. I thought that the majority was the ruling people in all situations. I understand protecting our children but peanut allergies have been around for decades but not until recently have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches been outlawed in society. I grew up with a close friend with a severe nut allergy but he was able to make sure that he asked if nuts were included in any food that he was near. It was his responsibility to make sure to ask not everyone’s responsibility to “watch out for”. What has happen to personal responsibility of our own lives? As a parent, if my child suffered from an allergy of this magnitude I would make sure to teach the child to ask before ingesting, not to assume that everyone else is looking out for my child.

  • http://www.foodallergynewscenter.com Jil

    Miranda Waggoner is not an expert in this field. She is not a scientist or a medical doctor. You can find facts regarding the rise in peanut allergies on the websites of the NIH and FARE.

    Dave, you have good questions. Many individuals with severe peanut allergies also suffer from asthma. Having both conditions increases the likelihood of suffering an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. If a peanut allergy/asthmatic individual is sitting a row or two away from you and others opening foil packets of peanuts, releasing peanut dust in the air, there is a high chance you are going to cause the asthmatic/peanut allergic individual to have an asthmatic reaction. The severity of the reaction will be unknown until it occurs. It cannot be calculated. Do you want your flight diverted for a medical emergency because you couldn’t wait to eat peanuts? And, yes, these individuals are able to navigate through crowds in the airport, etc. as they are acutely aware of their surroundings at all times, avoiding individuals and restaurants that are serving or ingesting their allergen. Their survival depends on it. Anaphylactic/asthmatic food allergy sufferers carry medication at all times. The medication is not a cure-all, it buys them time until they can get to a hospital.

    • Nick

      Waggoner is a social scientist who studies, in part, how societal problems come be to thought of as problems, epidemics, etc. Doctors and food researchers do not have the tools to do this kind of research, so neither they–nor the untrained public–are in a position to make statements about the how society is shaped in these ways.

      There is a legitimate and important question at the heart of this and similar research. In this case, it is to what extent is this so-called “epidemic” a result of various social and biological causes. How much is due to increased media coverage and awareness, how much to some physiological or food production changes? As a researcher of this kind, she is also interested in what THIS CASE tells us about the social processes involved GENERALLY so that we can be more aware of them. It’s unfortunate you sought to find out what Dr. Waggoner was not, rather than what her training is and how it might be useful to you and others.

      It’s understandable that individuals and their families are very fearful (my daughter has a tree nut allergy and we’ve been in the ER as a result more than once) and anxious, but that is not the marker of an epidemic, and does not tell us anything about how this puzzling situation has arisen. If we as a society do not investigate HOW scientist do research or HOW doctors come to make diagnoses or HOW legislatures make policies we are reliant only on these entities for the information they provide from their perspectives and reflecting their interests. Being critical of the widely held beliefs on this topic is not a personal affront, it is a civic duty.

  • Andew

    Tell this girl and her family that its not an epidemic.


    The unbelievably selfish and ignorant comments about an airplane and lightening is laughable. Imagine standing at the top of a mountain during a lightning storm while holding a lightning rod. THAT’S what it’s like to be on an airplane while all of those around you are eating something deadly to you. This article was poorly titled and the “study” was unprofessionally designed and its “results” were incorrectly stated. Shame on you all.

  • Sabrina

    Based upon my own experiences as a parent of a child with a severe peanut allergy I found this article offensive and somewhat misleading. Here are some facts that were not mentioned: According to the NOAA there are an average of 53 deaths per year in the United States from lightening strikes[http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/fatalities.htm], there have been an average of 25 deaths per year from school shootings since 1999 [http://www.schoolsecurity.org/trends/school_violence.html], and there are an average of 200 deaths per year from food allergy reactions [ “Anaphylaxis in the United States,” Archives of Internal Medicine, 2001]. Many argue that the number 200 is inflated, and it is if you only consider peanut allergies. Since 2010 there have been an average of 11 deaths per year from peanut allergy reactions (mostly children) alone. The reason for the decrease is because of the hyper awareness and dilligance of parents, the children who have food allergies, teachers and staff. What would you do if you KNEW your child would die if they came in contact with an everyday item? How would you handle birthday parties? School field trips? Family outings? The very things that most people take for granted, a small (and young) portion of the population must deal with everyday. The death of a child, for any reason, is still a devastating loss. If only one child a year died from cancer, automobile accidents, drowning, etc, that would be one child too many and we would do everything in our power as parents and a society to prevent that from happening again. Is a parent that puts a fence around their pool to prevent accidental drowning over reacting or taking a necessary precaution? Please tell me what the difference is.

    • RICK

      ” If only one child a year died from cancer, automobile accidents, drowning, etc, that would be one child too many and we would do everything in our power as parents and a society to prevent that from happening again.”

      Well, since we actually don’t do this as a society, it’s safe to say we wouldn’t. We do not do everything in our power to prevent a single death from any number of causes. In fact, I bet you can’t go to a data set, find evidence of a single death from a discrete cause and then point to ANY specific measures taken to prevent future deaths due to that one.

      You ask what the differences is. The difference is what a person or family does to protect their child and what society–corporations, schools, hospitals, lawmakers–does. Society has to balance far more considerations, including the fact that a single life matters less to society than to a family. Family’s build a fence, they don’t outlaw pools in their neighborhood.

      How would you feel if 15 years from now research reveals that there are far more toxic allergies or other health threats than peanut allergies but because of the flawed thinking about or over-reaction (though I’m not saying this the case, just that it could be) and as a result some children lost their lives? Would you be OK with that? Would you be glad no one said, “hey, let’s make sure our assumptions are correct on this.”

      All public health choices, policies, etc. are trade offs. Money spent there is not available here. It’s an important consideration.

      What if this research found that food manufacturers downplayed the effects of tree nuts and concealed them from the public, paid for research to challenge findings? Would you want to know even if it was “offensive” to the companies who were “just feeding the public”? I think so.

      The fact is we need more of this kind of research not less. How many corporations and tens of thousands of people do medical research for every one person that closely examines how an “epidemic” comes about?

  • http://www.ohioallergyasthma.com/ Latha – Lancaster Allergist

    Just because its rare does not mean that you shouldn’t have to worry about it. You should always be aware that people may have an allergy. Thanks for your post!