Blowing up Another Food Myth

Food allergies have been on the rise, in recent years. Some reports show that as much as 10% of children in developed nations are affected. And peanut allergies seem to be the most prevalent.

Searching the Internet, one can find dozens of near-death allergic reactions to peanuts – and a lot of these experiences center around airlines and the ubiquitous bag of complementary salty treats.

In August 2013, a woman and her son refused to board a United Airlines flight from Denver to Newark, due to her nine-year-olds severe peanut allergy. It seems the agent at the gate told the mom that “the crew would not make an onboard announcement about Joshua’s allergy.”

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The mother, Lianne Mandelbaum, “had seen other passengers eating peanuts while waiting to board, and she concluded that the flight would be dangerous for Joshua.”

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A few months later she launched a website, asking “that airlines ‘institute a bill of rights’ for food allergic passengers. Those rights would require airlines to create buffer zones, of at least three rows in front and three rows in back, of the row where an allergic passenger is seated. Airlines would not serve products containing nuts within the buffer zone. Also, flight crews would ask passengers in the zone to refrain from eating any products with nuts.”

Well that’s all fine and good, but then I found this. Just last week, on a Ryanair flight, “a group of passengers were converging menacingly on a Zimbabwean man they accused of trying to kill” a four-year-old girl.

And what did he do to the little girl? Did he threaten her with a box cutter? Did he take her hostage at gunpoint? Nope. His crime was ignoring a “request by the air stewardess to refrain from eating nuts on the flight and had opened a packet while sitting four rows behind the girl.”

Wait… four rows behind her? I thought the “safe zone,” according to Ms. Mandelbaum, was three rows. I guess she’ll have to amend her “Bill of Rights.”

Apparently, the allergic reaction nearly killed young Fae Platten, and most everyone blamed Mr. Zimbabwean. But was it really his fault, for eating peanuts, four rows removed?

Evidently not, thanks to new research conducted at Kings College, London, by genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector. His research discovered that nut allergies haven’t been around that long – that the first study of them wasn’t until 1969.

He found that, like a lot of food claims, the airborne risk from nut dust is just another myth.

Spector “argues that while nut allergy is real and scary for parents and sufferers, it cannot, for all practical purposes, be transmitted through the air enough to cause such severe reactions.”

Peanut particles are heavy and “studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air – or in the key allergens in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction.” In fact, Spector consulted with some of the top pediatric allergists and they all agreed “that the plane incident as it was reported could not have occurred however strong the plane air conditioning or the belief of the parents. Her lips or tongue must’ve touched something else directly.”

So what’s with the sharp increase of nut allergies? Why the rise? Well, evidently, it comes down to diet. No, not the children’s, but that of the mothers during pregnancy.

There are trillions of different bacteria in our lower gut to keep us healthy. The bacteria feed off the fiber from rich foods. The most crucial microbe is an anti-inflammatory chemical called acetate.

It seems the more diverse the mother’s diet and the more fiber she consumes, the more acetate is produced and the lower the rate of subsequent allergies in her children. But moms in developed countries are being told to limit what they eat and “there is a common belief that eating peanuts will lead to peanut allergies in babies later.” In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

They are told to avoid eating meats and cheeses, and so they end up on very restrictive diets, lacking the diversity they require to pass on to their babies. The mothers end up starving the gut microbes, thus negatively affecting the baby’s natural immune system.

Data is now coming to light that “shows non-allergic mothers who eat peanuts are less likely to subsequently have peanut allergic children,” and “paradoxically, peanut allergy looks like it could be cured by reintroducing tiny amounts of peanuts slowly in early life.”

But rather than take a step back and take a common sense approach, our society is becoming allergy-centric. As a matter of fact, the latest research concludes “that while 38% of people think they have a food allergy, the real figure is closer to around 1%.”

So how about we all just eat what we want in moderation, stop worrying so much, and enjoy life.

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