Peanut Allergies Not the Epidemic Americans Might Think

    July 26, 2013

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.”