Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were once a school lunch staple, slipped into a brown paper bag that was stashed in a locker or desk until lunchtime.
Now, more than ever, schools across the United States have banned the ubiquitous lunch item, leaving us to wonder: “Why there are so many allergies in kids these days, and what we can do about it?”
According to a recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, peanut allergies in kids have tripled in the U.S. between 1997 and 2008, and no one is really sure why.
“We don’t know why this is happening, but there are many theories,” study author Dr. Scott H. Sicherer of the Jaffe Food Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells WebMD.
According to Sicherer, 3 million Americans are allergic to either peanuts - a legume, not a true nut - or tree nuts. (Ref. 1)
Of those with peanut allergies, 400,000 are of school age, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
That means 400,000 kids have to avoid anything with peanuts or risk anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly reaction that causes the throat to swell, cutting off air to the lungs, leaving the parents of these kids scrambling to replace peanut butter in their kids’ lunches.
So what’s going on?
Blame it on the anti-bacterials?
One theory – called the hygiene hypothesis - suggests that the rise in allergies is because our kids are just too clean.
Rather than being exposed to all kinds of bacteria during old-fashioned outdoor play, modern moms are obsessed with antibacterial products, which is the equivalent of sending them out into the world, from a sterile environment.
Instead of coming into contact with certain microorganisms and bacteria at critical stages of development, kids have been protected, potentially leaving them with a delicate immune system that is much more prone to allergies. (Ref. 2)
A propensity to push for antibiotics for every cough or sniffle – so much so that many new bacteria are completely resistant to the drugs – has only exacerbated the problem.
A 2014 study from the University of Chicago found that at least in mice, antibiotics kill off a certain strain of bacteria that prevents the allergens in peanuts from entering the bloodstream, so there is no allergic reaction. (Ref. 3)
Without those bacteria, allergens trigger an instant reaction.
A problem from birth?
At one point, experts believed that early exposure to peanuts and other foods that are more commonly known to trigger allergies was the problem. The big eight food allergens, according to Medical News Today, include eggs, fish, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, soy and wheat, are responsible for 90 percent of all allergies.
Parents were told to wait until after their kids turned three, when digestive systems are more developed, before testing the foods, and pregnant and nursing moms were advised to avoid nuts entirely. (Ref. 4)
So moms did exactly that, and nothing changed. The statistics for children with peanut allergies remained basically the same.
Back to the drawing board
Some experts are now thinking that exposure to a small amount of peanut protein, either in utero or from mom while nursing, will help generate a tolerance for peanuts rather than trigger an allergy.
In a 2012 study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, children who were given small amounts of peanut protein between the ages of four to 11 months were significantly less likely to develop peanut allergies later compared to those whose parents avoided peanut protein.
“This is really quite an important study,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. “We have been frustrated in what to do about it, and most of the tendency has been, since it’s such a scary phenomenon that parents and even paediatricians have taken the avoidance approach - keep them away from peanuts.” (Ref. 5)
The new research suggests that early exposure to peanuts could be as beneficial as playing outside - which builds a stronger immune system.
It’s our diet
According to a 2010 study, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by consuming burgers and fries on a regular basis, either.
Much of the American diet – and therefore that of our kids - is made up of fast food, processed foods and too few vegetables. What we eat impacts the bacteria in our gut that controls our immune systems, and on a diet of fast food rather than home-grown food, our gut bacteria will not be in balance.
“The intestine is the site where the immune system meets the microbiota,” said Paolo Lionetti, a paediatric gastroenterologist at Meyer Children's Hospital in Florence, Italy, who headed the study. “We have demonstrated that diet is the most important thing for having a diverse, healthy gut. If we change our diets, then we change our microbiota, then we can improve our health.” (Ref. 6)
And, maybe reduce the risk of childhood allergies at the same time.