January 13th, 2009
03:42 PM ET

Food allergies: Not so nuts after all

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

I was a junior at Princeton when a group of student journalists and I excitedly sat down for dinner with Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein at J.B. Winberie Restaurant about three or four years ago. Whenever I dine out with people I don’t know well, it’s always a little embarrassing to tell the server that I have severe allergies to all nuts and peanuts. It’s especially embarrassing when a writer I admire is a dinner guest – so I try to be as discreet as possible when inquiring about the ingredients that went into certain menu items. (Of course, it would be all the more embarrassing to actually incur a life-threatening reaction at the table).

Recently I was surprised to read a column expressing that, in Stein’s view, food allergies are on the rise because of “Yuppiedom.” His argument is that the increase in food allergies among children in the U.S. is best explained by paranoia-fueled mass hysteria. He writes that “peanut allergies are only an issue in rich, lefty communities” and that the parent of an allergic child is perhaps just “a parent who needs to feel special.” (Read the column)

Let me reiterate that I greatly admire Stein as a writer, and his columns are often funny in a good way. But this issue is not light-hearted. About 12 million Americans have food allergies, and the statistics are more concerning among children – one out of every 17 children under 3 years old in America has an allergy, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Some of those 12 million, like me, have had near-fatal reactions to common foods, such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy. Some of the children will grow out of their allergies but, experts say, many with seafood or nut problems need to avoid those foods for life. It’s true that we don’t know why allergies have been on the rise – experts say maybe Americans are overly hygienic, or that it’s genes, or environmental factors – but I’m pretty sure it’s not because of “Yuppiedom” that I had to go to the hospital a few years ago after eating the wrong cookie.

Perhaps most troubling, Mr. Stein suggests we probably don’t need explicit ingredient labels or to take peanuts out of schools because “food allergies kill about as many people as lightning strikes each year.” Even if the actual food allergy mortality rate is low – a number that would undoubtedly be hard to measure because the cause of death may be misdiagnosed – perhaps it’s related to all of the life-saving interventions that exist today, most notably the portable epinephrine injection sold as EpiPen. Without the prevalence of EpiPens and the conscientiousness of food companies, schools and restaurants, perhaps that death rate would be a lot higher.

Albeit perhaps unintentionally, Stein does make a good point about food labels. While there are not literally labels that say “made in a factory that also has a break room where a guy named Dave often sneaks in a King Size Snickers despite this 'diet' he says he's on,” parents do have to wonder whether that description is any more meaningful than “made in a factory that processes products with peanuts.” The truth is that we really don’t know what any of this means in terms of how safe those products are for children with peanut allergies. The Food and Drug Administration's held a public hearing in September on this very issue.

The bottom line is that, for those millions of Americans who have food allergies, well-informed awareness of the issue is critical. Perhaps there are parents out there who are unnecessarily paranoid about their children having allergies, but it wouldn’t have become an issue if there weren’t plenty of parents with legitimate, evidence-based concerns about their children who really could die from common foods.

For those of us who DO have allergies, please don’t throw peanuts back at us.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. DrD11

    Please pay attention to "All nuts allergies"
    Many times this is not the nuts itselves fault,but the preservatives added.Specifically I point out the "Sulfites"(Read the labels on red wine bottles).
    It is more prevalent than what people want to believe.

    January 13, 2009 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. punkymama

    Thank you as a parent of a child with life threatening severe food allergies. I want my kid to grow up in a world where his differences are accommodated in a safe way without putting others out not ridiculed.

    January 13, 2009 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Julie

    Thank you! It's hard enough day to day with severe food allergies without having to worry that strangers won't believe you. Even telling people that I have almost died three times from anaphylactic reactions doesn't always do the trick. The new labeling laws have helped a lot, and I could not understand what problem Joel Stein had with clearer labeling. The may contain statements must inconvenience him soooooo much when he is grocery shopping (::rolling my eyes::). He doesn't seem to understand that you have to be a self-advocate when you have food allergies, and since so much of our social life is based around food, those of us with allergies don't have much of a choice but to bring them up around people we are eating with. It's not an attempt to get attention, it's an attempt to stay alive and avoid a hospital visit. Thank you for writing this response to that article, we food allergy people need to stick together!

    January 14, 2009 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. L. Dillon

    As a parent of a peanut allergic son, I applaud your well written and well informed article about food allergies; a sharp contrast to Joel Stein's "failed attempt at humor" column. No longer can we rely on mainstream media for accurate information (your article excluded). No, editors are more interested in selling paper or hits on their websites at the expense of writing the truth. Consulting one ignorant source for an article? That's the golden standard these days. While one could argue that Stein's piece was simply an attempt at creating controversy, then I suggest he write that the Holocaust never existed; a subject as humorous to the Jewish community as his piece was to those who have food allergies. And for the LA Times editor who let his piece see the light of day, it's one thing to create controversy, and it's another to propagate the misconceptions about food allergies that continue to put those who suffer from this real condition at risk. Your article mitigates the damage done by Stein's ignorance. You give us hope that maybe journalistic standards aren't dead and that perhaps the discerning public will know your article is as accurate as Stein's is fallacious. I pity Stein for his ignorance and insecurity and commend you for your veracity. And he is not worthy of your respect nor that of anyone else.

    January 15, 2009 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Elizabeth

    I have lots of allergies to medicines, foods, pollens, grasses...well, the list could go on and on. My worst food allergies are to shellfish/crustaceans and corn. Now, I can pretty easily avoid the shellfish and crustaceans and beef. I know what foods to avoid there. The corn allergy is horrible. If corn isn't in a product today, it will be tomorrow. Corn isn't just corn oil, corn syrup, or corn meal. If it were it would be simple. No, it's now so many chemical names like xantham gum or it's just used as vinegar but no one tells you what kind of vinegar. So even if you ask the chef, which I do always, you can't be sure. So out comes the Epipen and a lovely trip to the emergency room all because I wanted to go out to eat with our friends or your boss asked you to take the client to dinner. So no, I don't think that this is some kind of yuppie issue. I'm 42 and this is just getting worse. I would love to just go sit down for a meal and not have to instruct my dinner partner (if it's business this may be a person I may barely know) in the proper use of an epipen, just in case the chef tries to kill me. I'd like to just be a normal guest who can order off a regular menu, asking no questions and eat my meal without the waitress rolling her eyes like I'm some sort of headcase because I'm "special."

    January 15, 2009 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. AR

    I saw a link for this article on allergicgirl's website. I was so upset when I read the original Stein op/ed piece. I have 2 children who have many health issues, including food allergies. I call companies A LOT to ask about ingredients and clarification and I usually don't get much of a reply. Stein's piece I feel fuels the fire for others not respecting peoples food allergies as real. I've talked to some companies who claim their product doesn't contain something yet admit it does in the next breath. Thank you for writing this response. I would hate to see what would happen if schools, restaurants and food companies didn't take seriously food allergies.

    January 16, 2009 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. R. W. Mercer

    No mention of soy that they seem to put in everything these days. Many who have peanut allergies are allergic to other legumes. The reaction may not be as severe as with peanuts, but I think it occurs quite often. I try and avoid both.

    January 18, 2009 at 08:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Rebecca

    Thank-you for being an ally! It's easy for Mr. Stein to be so brave about food allergies since he doesn't have any! He quoted the odds of the general public dying from food allergies.... the odds are much different if you actually have a food allergy!

    Mr. Stein complains about Yuppie parents who mistakenly think their kids have food allergies, then he complains about these parents having their kids tested. Mr. Stein suggests the tests will "freak kids out". It is very likely that these children have some other type of food sensitivity (like lactose or celiac) that is confusing their parents. Testing might lead them to the right answer.

    Yes, some schools do restrict nut foods, usually they are preschools and very young grades. Every school is unique and must develop a plan that will work best for them. It is perfectly reasonable for a teacher not to want anything in the classroom that could be a danger to any of the children. In a classroom with severely allergic children, peanuts are a danger that become one more thing to worry about. Should society discriminate against the allergic children just because they are a minority?

    The only thing I imagine about my daughter's food allergy is a cure. If Mr. Stein could only know the amount of time I've spent retracing my steps, wondering if something I did caused her allergies, the terrible pain she's endured, and the lengths we go to to help her. If he had even an ounce of compassion, perhaps then he wouldn't try to profit by kicking people when they are down.

    My 2nd grade daughter is an infinitely braver person than Mr. Stein could ever be.


    January 18, 2009 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. ACinCincy

    I am a parent of a child with an egg allergy. She is 3 years old.

    The only thing that bothers me is that more and more schools are instituting peanut-free zones, or are banning peanut products altogether.

    I ask – what about my daughter? What about kids allergiec to milk or eggs, or fish? But don't get me wrong – I do not ask these questions in the context that I think there should also be egg-free zones and milk-free zones... What I think is that these well-meaning bans are a disaster waiting to happen.

    I worry that creating so-called "safe" zones will lead to a culture of complacency where educators won't be on the lookout for danger because the offending item is "banned". Let's be real – kids are cruel. The instant someone finds out little Mary is allergic to peanuts is the instant they try to find a way to sneak one into her sandwich.

    I would feel far more comfortable sending her to a school where there is an epipen in every room, where teachers are trained to look for signs of a reaction, where children are taught not to share foods, and to wash hands after eating than I would EVER feel at a school with so-called "allergy free" zones.

    January 19, 2009 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Miriam

    I am a 32 year old woman with multiple severe food allergies. Some I have had since I was a baby, most I gained over time because I didn't avoid my food allergies.

    I didn't know I was sick due to food, because I was always sick and I thought that constant diarrhea was "normal".

    Over time the food allergies grew more severe.

    Now I react to severe foods just by inhalling them within hundreds of feet, including Popcorn and Olive Oil.

    People tell me I am overreacting to my fear of Popcorn all the time. Even after they PURPOSELY expose me to it and I am dragged off to the ER AGAIN for Anaphalyctic Shock. My co-workers used to cook Popcorn all the time because it was "forbidden". Including the HR director.

    So any article that diminishes people with food allergies puts my life further at risk.

    I recently (yesterday) got turned down as a volunteer, because the projects they are working with have a lot of Corn in them and one would airsole the Corn.

    Food allergies can be horribly isolating. I can no longer work outside my home due to them and people's unwillingness to respect my life by not eating Popcorn around me. I have been told that my Food Allergies make me unemployable by HR directors across the state I live in.

    January 20, 2009 at 00:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kelly H.

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I wanted to thank you for this story. My son and niece both have severe peanut allergies and for people who don't understand it's really hard. They think you are being paranoid when all you are doing is protecting your children. It helps to have great writers that know first hand what this is like.

    You interviewed me back in June for my story and I wanted to thank you again. I'm a big fan. Stay safe!

    Here's the link from my interview with you


    Thanks again Elizabeth!

    Kelly H.

    January 21, 2009 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. sue

    my husband suffers from food allergies hes a celiac, no gluton. and the only thing you can do is have totally gluton free foods,before he was diagnosed he would become severly sick.we only eat out at 2 restaurants because of this,they have glutton free menus. I dont know why more restaurants dont have this,celiac spue desease is as common as diabetes. just not well known. a simple blood test is all thats needed. your aticle is a reminder of how we need to make food allergies in the fore front. then maybe more research can be done ,for so many that suffer.

    January 21, 2009 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Leah

    This topic really hits home with me. I have a food allergic child who initially was severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and milk. The allergies were so severe that he couldn't be in the same room as peanut butter without a severe reaction. The touch of milk and peanut butter to his skin would also cause a reaction. Upon entering kindergarten he was no longer intolerant to airborn peanuts but still highly allergic to peanuts and milk (the slightest ingestion caused and anaphylactic reaction).

    It is extremely difficult for a young child to advocate for themselves in a school full of uneducated staff and students. My child at that young age knew that he couldn't eat certain things but also counted on the adults not to feed him unsafe foods. So when a teacher gives this child food in the classroom and tells him it's safe, is a 6 year old really going to dispute that? The administration owes it to that child and every other child to provide a safe environment, just as they would provide a safe environment for a child with any other special needs.

    We are one of the lucky families, as our child has shown an improvement every year in his allergy testing. Can he eat peanuts, no. However he will probably not die from ingesting them accidently. My child is no longer touch sensitive to milk. That is also a milestone. Milk has actually been the hardest of the allergies to overcome since it is in so many more foods than peanuts (and then to have to worry about cross-contamination-ugh)!

    It isn't until you've watched your child struggling to breathe as the throat instantly closes (from the slightest particle of the allergen) that you realize how serious food allergies really can be. Not everybody has them this seriously, but many do, and many more will.

    When the administrators have to ask me "what is the worst thing that can happen to your child?", I know there is badly needed education for them. Until there is better education how do i confidently trust these educators (who allow these foods in the classroom) to make sure my child keeps breathing on their watch?

    January 23, 2009 at 17:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. corinne

    As the mom of a 9 year old w/ egg peanut fish allergy you have to have a thick skin. If the parents of my daughter don't understand her allergy or take the time to learn, then unfortunately it is a friendship lost. I would rather be overprotective than risk losing my child. Most people are more than willing to help once the seriousness is explained. Of course now she is her own proponent and she does very well expressing her concerns when I am not around. I just pray that she stays vocal as she enters the tween years. And as for restaurants we stick to one or two and the waiters and managers know us and accommodate us and get our business regularly (good tipping helps too). Good luck to all of you. Mom of Maegan

    January 27, 2009 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. bfg

    There is another problem with food labelling laws that has not been addressed. Medicine is not food but uses food products to produce vaccines. It is well known that eggs can be a problem when getting vaccinated since eggs are used to produce vaccines. But many foods can be used in the culture medium or in the adjuvant. Trace amounts of the food protein can remain in the vaccine. These ingredients are considered trade secrets and are not listed on the package insert. How can a physician advise his allergic patient about getting vaccinated if he doesn't know if there is peanut, soy, or sesame oil used in the vaccine?

    January 28, 2009 at 11:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Tara

    With the inceased diagnoses and awareness of food allergies, I wanted to simply pass the word along that the company I work for THRIVE Allergy & Gluten-free Expo addresses these health concerns in Chicago at McCormick Place on April 18-19th, 2009.

    We are hosting a large scale business to consumer expo dedicated to providing the best and most effective products, services and informational support for people suffering from food, skin, respiratory, environmental, eye and latex allergies as well as for people with Celiac Disease. THRIVE offers attendees the opportunity to purchase allergy-specific products, a Marketplace Forum where attendees can view demonstrations and sample products, a Health Living Forum where renowned medical physicians and professionals will discuss food allergies and Celiac Disease, a Gluten-free & Free-From Cooking Stage and a bookstore.

    I hope this event information is helpful and that THRIVE can help you connect with food allergy resources, education and relief.

    January 30, 2009 at 14:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. K Burgett

    I can only hope that Mr. Stein and his family have children or grandchildren with life-threatening food allergies. Perhaps, he would better understand the issue.

    February 5, 2009 at 14:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. allergy grocer

    Very cool information. Thanks for this. Keep up the good work.

    January 16, 2010 at 02:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Howie

    Basically, you are all full of it. A few hives and a scratchy throat is not a life threatening reaction. Lots of people think they have a dangerous allergy, but oddly, no one ever actually dies from it? Why not? Because there never was a danger! Do a little actual research, see if you can find one confirmed case (not just anecdotal reports on some blog) of a person who died from a peanut (other than choking on it). You wont, because they don't. Most "food allergies" are hypochondria at its best. Further, actual science has proven that there is no such thing as airborne peanut contamination, so all of you who claim your child had a "severe reaction" just from being in the same room with peanuts are clearly delusional. If you repeat over and over to your child that they may die in the presence of a peanut, it is likely that they will have a stress reaction the next time they smell peanuts. This is not an allergy, just something you did to them. Nice work parents!

    September 14, 2010 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Tom Carten

    K Burgett...
    Mr. Stein found one of his children did develop a peanut allergy. He mentioned it in an apologetic column recently in the magazine and said he now understands a lot more about the allergy. Ms. Landau either did not read the column or does not follow Mr. Stein as closely as she indicates.

    September 14, 2010 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Margie

    I developed a mild food allergy when I turned 30. I can't eat apples, pears, peaches, cherries, nectarines, almonds, pecans, soy (except for tofu, strange), pistachios. It's horrible because I was able to eat all of those things before and now I know what I'm missing. So, the allergy wasn't indoctrinated into my psyche. It's not something life threatening yet, but I ate some just picked peaches a few weeks ago just to see if I could without a reaction, and this time it caused a sore in my mouth. Maybe the number of deaths are too low to be documented, but one death is bad enough.

    September 15, 2010 at 11:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Howie

      You are probably having a reaction to the pesticides sprayed on the crops. Make sure you avoid organic fruits as the pesticides used in this category have a much more durable residue than pesticides used in non-organic farming. If its really the fruit, force yourself to eat more of it, more often. You can get rid of most allergies by getting your system used to the offending items.

      September 15, 2010 at 12:33 | Report abuse |
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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.