by Marion Nestle
May 26 2010

Peanut allergies on the increase

A survey report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology says that peanut allergies have tripled in the last decade.  Why?  The authors don’t really know although they speculate that children aren’t exposed to as much dirt as they used to be.

Are we really that much cleaner than we were 10 years ago?  I doubt it.  But I would very much like to know why this is happening.

  • Pete

    Could this be related to the rapid increase in use of Soy based infant formula. The soy bean is very closely related to the peanut and is not used in Asia the same way it is used in the US (meaning studies are suspect).

  • One more reason why it’s important get outside and enjoy nature …

  • Renee

    My daughter (9 yrs old) has the fatal peanut and tree nut allergy. I don’t know the cause of higher rates in general, but we live out in the country, and she has been exposed to “dirt” all her life. I’m sure she’s consumed quite a bit on grubby hands, as well. In her specific case, I don’t think it comes from living in a hermetically sealed suburban house 🙂

    I sure wish they could figure it out, though, because it’s a very scary thing to live with.

  • Anthro

    I share your curiosity and hope there is enough research going on to get to the bottom of this increase in peanut allergy and the whole spectrum of immune system disorders. It’s fun to speculate, but after 30 years of coping with allergies and years of shots, I’d love to get something besides a shrug from the allergist.

  • While I don’t really understand the proposed possible link between the dirt and the peanuts, I do firmly believe that we are overly obsessed with cleanliness (and those hideous antimicrobial gels) to the extent that we are destroying good bacteria and our own immune systems.

  • stephanie

    My hypothesis: Not the Hygiene Hypothesis but early use of antibiotics in combination with immunizations.

  • Cucinatx

    As a personal chef who focuses on healthy food for clients, I read a lot of material regarding food sources and environment. I am wondering (I emphasize wondering) if the increase in peanut allergies, along with other childhood autoimmune diseases like autism, ADHD, can be traced to parents’ diet (before and during pregnancy), environmental hazards including air and soil pollutants.

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  • Could it be the mold that’s said to grow on peanuts? I’m not sure if this would have changed from ten years ago, but it’s a thought. My nephew just got diagnosed with a peanut allergy, and boy does it take the joy out of a PB&J.

  • Deb

    I’m thinking it’s probably not the under-exposure to dirt. However, in my opinion kids today are kept way too germ free (overuse of anti-biotics, germ wipes etc.) Usually food sensitivities develop from over-exposure. Could this be the classic case of even too much of a good thing is bad? Peanuts and peanut products are included in quite a bit of processed packaged food. Which is a whole other can of worms…

  • Natalie

    I also do not think that the peanut allergy can be linked to cleanliness, after all, it is just a survey as this article points out and up to the interpretation of the survey taker. However, I do think there is a link to other environmental allergies and the overuse of antibiotics, antibacterials, and harsh cleaning chemicals.

  • Neil

    Epigenes! All diseases are genetic enviromental interactions and the epigenes lead the causal factors. Proof? Correct me if I am wrong: peanuts are legume not a a nut.

  • Laura

    My kid was at daycare since she was 1 year old. They spent at least half the day outside. She chose to be in the sandbox quite a bit of the time. We have always had 2-3 cats at home. I’m sure she has ingested a lot more dirt than I did as a child. Now she has non-life threatening allergies to peanut, wheat, soy, milk, and eggs. I have my doubts about that hygiene hypothesis. I sure hope somebody figures out the real cause of the rise in allergies.

  • Just an idea- could it be that physicians are just more aware of the allergy, and are thus testing, recognizing, and diagnosing it more? Similar to how it may seem as though there’s been a huge increase in learning disorders and ADHD, but it could be that they always existed, and we now simply have a name/”treatment” for them so physicians see it more? Or have we been thoroughly testing for peanut allergies for a while now?

  • tBoy

    “Soil”, not “dirt”

  • I agree many of the comments here- early use of antibiotics, overly clean lives, environmental toxins, etc. Here’s a thought. Much like corn, wheat and other foods, peanuts have been manipulated, by lots of different means ( let’s leave that alone for the moment). I have wondered in my work as a Foodologist, helping clients with their relationship with food, if many of the foods that could be eaten by humans are no longer edible because they don’t resemble their for-bearers, especially to our immune system. This combined with the other issues, seems like a recipe for concern.

  • ruth

    I’m not sure if this has been looked into by any study, (though I don’t think so), but it seems that kids from Asian countries tend to have less peanut allergies.

    Anyone has any idea on that?

  • deb

    What about misdiagnoses? Gov’t report released last week found that misdiagnoses and poorly executed tests are rampant; that true incidence of food allergies is only about 8% for children and 5% for adults while 30% of the population believes they have them.

  • Renee

    Peanut allergies aren’t easily misdiagnosed –your child’s throat itches and then closes so they have trouble breathing. Additionally, their eyes swell shut and they get hives everywhere. And this happens within minutes of ingesting peanuts.

    I tend to believe that it might be related to the increase in the number of vaccines kids get so early.

  • I don’t think it’s just a matter of misdiagnosis. One of the problems with the reports on “true incidence of food allergies” is that they are focused on the technical medical definition of an allergy, IgE reaction. They leave out all the people who have a severe intolerance to a food but not an IgE reaction. Both of my daughters either were or still are severely intolerant of corn in any form. They wouldn’t show anything on an IgE test but give them something with a fleck of a corn derivative and they will be up all night in massive stomach pain. I suspect part of the difference in statistics is some people only count IgE while others count all people affected by a food.

    I also think the cleanliness theory is wrong. While some parents go ubber clean most kids still play in the dirt. (And a lot are getting allergies long before they can roll over let alone play in dirt.) I think we need to look at what we are doing to our food supply. Both the chemicals used in it and the GMO changes. Our bodies are reacting to food like it’s foreign and in many ways lots of our food is foreign. Every allergy my children have or had can be directly linked to GMO products (corn, soy, nightshade gene GMOed into soy). It’s not proof but it makes me wonder.

  • LindsayB

    I read about a study conducted in the UK where they were following the rise of peanut allergy in children since the introduction of GM soy around a decade ago, and found a 3-fold increase since GM soy was introduced into their food chain. The reason for the study was that peanuts and soy share many of the same proteins, and studies of GM soy found an increase in the levels of allergenic proteins compared to non-GM soy.

  • Pete

    Thanks LindasyB – thats what I’m tryin to say.

  • As said by “FoodFitnessFreshair,” I suspect mold as well. From what I understand, peanuts harbor a lot of mold.

    I also wouldn’t be surprised about GM foods being the culprit, as LindsayB mentioned. Allergies and autoimmune problems have increased significantly since GM foods were introduced into our food chain. My pediatrician has noticed a rise in allergies in the past decade + as well.

    Maybe it’s so complex, that it is a cumulative result of mold, GM (from mother’s diet and child) and vaccines? All of those things directly affect the immune response system. Maybe it’s all just too much?

  • Nurse in the ‘Hood

    The hygiene or germ theory says the increase in food allergies in general, not just peanut allergies, can be attributed to our immune systems not having much to do because we are well vaccinated and don’t have to worry about clean water and sewage running through the street. That’s the kind of clean it means. Food allergies are not an issue in third-world or developing countries. Immune systems there have plenty to worry about without bothering with food protein.

    Food allergies are also “regional.” In the States, we are exposed to lots of peanuts, dairy, wheat, shellfish, etc. In Japan, people are exposed to lots of rice. They have higher incidence of rice allergy than we do.

    Finally, allergies are a malfunction of the immune system. Therefore, they must be defined by the IgE, a product of the immune system. Food intolerance, though very real and burdensome, is not food allergy.

    In case you are wondering, I am a nurse currently working in a very large urban school district. I serve as the Life Threatening Allergy trainer for the district and have worked with pediatricians and allergists to develop the training.

  • Laura

    Being an expectant mother, I recently watched a popular documentary called the Business of Being Born. I’m not agreeeing or advocating anything in the documentary, but they touch on medications and other measures used during birth through recent history, which, one after one have been found to cause negative side effects. I have no real basis for this but it made me wonder if current popular treatments have any factor in the rise of allergies, like epidurals and pitocin. I guess the thing is there are so many factors in our diet and environment, it is hard to peg one thing. I agree though, hope someone figures it out soon!

  • FG_2009

    I agree with Rose, again it is speculation, but who knows the long term effects of GMOs on humans – I am appalled by researchers who say it is safe to eat GM crops – why do they know the long term. As someone said probably the peanut had so many genetic modifications that our body doesn’t recognize as a peanut anymore.

  • Cathy Richards

    My hypothesis is that we’re using dishwashers so much. It used to be that dishes got washed all together, with maybe a quick dip in rinse water that wouldn’t get changed by our frugal depression era parents. I remember helping mom and rinsing dishes in water that had bits of dinner floating around in it. There were bound to be peanut proteins left all over our “clean” dishes, bits of dirt etc. The current theory is that exposure to allergens early on might actually protect kids (as well as bacteria in dirt, on cow’s, on pets etc).

    Our dishes are just too darn clean.

    “That’s my theory. It is mine.”(for the monty python fans).

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  • I doubt the increase has anything to do with dirt exposure, but I think you are slightly off-base in your logic too. While we might not be much cleaner than we were a decade ago, we are spending notably more time indoors–away from pollens, soils, most insects, etc–especially children.

  • Michelle

    Just a thought but, could allergies be overdiagnosed?