I guess one can say I am ahead of my time when it comes to food allergies.
While food allergies, especially those with peanuts, have become allergies schools and parents proactively look out for, back in the day when I was in school and wrestling with a peanut allergy, peanut allergies were a little known phenomenon for which no special provisions were made.
But for me, it was very known and it changed my life.
My experience is likely different than many other kids these days who have battled peanut allergies since they were born because I am a kid born in the 70s and raised on peanut butter until the 80s, who ate it frequently until my brush with the allergy changed my course. But even then in a different era, I still continued to eat it.
I loved Goober Grape, a product found easily on the shelves, but typically grew up with peanut butter in my house. Since the adults at home liked the chunky variety, that’s what I ate since it was the only choice, though I will say I’m more partial to the creamy peanut butter.
But I also really liked snacks with peanuts, whether it was eating them out of the shell or downing Reese’s Pieces or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And of course, what kid raised on peanut butter didn’t enjoy peanut butter swirl types of ice cream?
And I also enjoyed some exotic dishes with peanut butter that my mother used to make, like cellophane noodles in a peanut sauce, and also the old-fashioned favorite, peanut brittle.
That all changed for me though in 1987.
My mother told me when I was little that I tested early for food allergies. I didn’t go for allergy tests but it was likely just my reaction to particular foods that I was deemed “allergic.” She kept me away from certain foods as a baby that gave me reactions, including strawberries.
But it was when I was about 12 that she took me to an allergist where I endured a battery of “scratch tests” as well as allergens injected directly into my skin, to see if I would react to any of them.
However, since that time it’s been learned that these allergy skin tests are not always correct when it comes to the results and often there are false positives and false negatives. Click here to read more on this topic by the Mayo Clinic. A person’s reaction to exposure to a tested allergen can even change from one day to the next! Incredible, when an allergy can be life threatening and even today, this type of testing is still imprecise.
I don’t know if I was tested for peanut butter, but the allergist told my mother to keep me away from milk chocolate, and certain types of animals that I loved, including horses and my dog. And I was certainly not told to stay away from peanuts or peanut butter.
When he told me that we should re-home our family dog, as well as my pet guinea pig, I replied to both, “If they go, then I go.”
I told him I had no issue at all with my pets, but because his test was right and because he was wearing a white coat, he was adamant and because I was a kid, I was “wrong.”
Thankfully, kid, dog and guinea pig all stayed put in the same household.
In the meantime, I started to steer clear of milk chocolate, which I now eat to this day without issue, and then continued to eat peanut butter with fervor. In fact, when I entered high school and bought lunch on a daily basis, I preferred the “a la carte” option to the hot lunch. That was typically a sandwich and milk for me. Since it was the least expensive on the sandwich menu, I tended to gravitate to peanut butter on a daily basis, but would often alternate with the tuna fish, another favorite.
One day in May 1987, shortly after lunch and as I was at the track during gym, a bunch of us were relaxing and chatting after we had walked around the track. While we talked I felt some itching under my one armpit. I noticed a couple of bumps. I didn’t think anything of it, and surmised maybe it was from shaving.
The next day, which was a Friday, I noticed the bumps still there. But I still figured it was nothing.
That night, I attended the senior prom, invited to go with a friend who was graduating that year. After the prom, which was a blast, we all congregated at our friend Annemarie’s house and sat around the pool. A few of the guys threatened to toss me in, and thankfully didn’t since none of us knew at the time that underneath my gown, my body was covered in hives.
My date drove me home at about 4 a.m. and I started to change out of my dress. My mother walked in and suddenly exclaimed, “My God! You’re covered in hives!”
Sure enough, I looked at my skin had raised red bumps all over it. And it seemed the more I scratched, the more the bumps would appear.
After having the pictures developed from the prom (yes, I’m a dinosaur to be able to remember that process), the photo below when I first looked closely at it, I was able to see redness in the area in the photo underneath my necklace and above my neckline. When I recognized that, I was shocked to see the effect of the allergy on me.
Being a nurse and also a person with allergies herself (severely allergic to bees), my mother has always been versed in allergy care, and kept a vial of adrenaline in the house because of her allergy. She gave me Benadryl, a product that I despise and avoid like the plague because of the severe drowsiness it has caused me when I have had to take it. But her treatment was and remains spot on, with the Summit Medical Group sharing information on it.
One of the perks of living in the same household as a nurse, especially one that worked for a private practitioner, was the access to care. The doctor who employed my mother was an old-world European female doctor educated during World War II who still believed in making house calls, and had her practice in the lower floor of her home. It was not uncommon for patients to call the doctor, who was tell them to “come over in your pajamas,” if any of her patients were gravely ill, and she would examine them at any time of day in her office. Needless to say, the doctor worked directly with my mother on my case, and phone calls were constant, especially with what happened next.
The following day, I slept in (thanks Benadryl) and later on felt tightness in my throat. That became the round of adrenaline shots for the week. I ended up with 16 of them in total, as I fought off the itchy skin. Some of those adrenaline injections, which are used in cases of “anaphylaxis” or a severe allergic reaction that may cause breathing difficulties, when I look back, may have been fear-based. The second I would feel any bit of tightness in my throat, even as the allergy subsided close to a week later, I became panicked. But with an allergy of that nature, one can never be too safe or sorry since it’s a matter of life and death. Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine is a lifesaver when it comes to allergies and can save a person who is also in cardiac arrest.
We tried to assess what could have been the cause of this allergic reaction. We revolved through all of the things I’d been exposed to, including detergent…which hadn’t changed. Additionally, an allergy of such length is not likely to occur when one is exposed to an allergen externally, but internally, since a food substance needs to work its way out of one’s system.
The day that I had first noticed the bumps, I deduced, I had eaten peanut butter at lunch. The next day, I ate tuna. We honed in on the peanut butter.
But how could it be? I ate peanut butter all the time without issue. Did my body develop an intolerance from too much of it? My mother questioned if it was something in the peanut butter itself, since the school couldn’t answer directly about the ingredients, and she suspected it could be some weird preservative of the government surplus foods that kids were served in the cafeteria.
Now one would think that I would avoid peanut butter like the plague back then…but I didn’t! I actually continued to eat it, but I never touched the school variety again. No one stopped me. My mother bought a “natural” variety that the Grand Union Supermarket in our town made fresh on site. Though I had no reaction from it, his was a dangerous practice too because it’s like Russian Roulette…you never know when you’ll be stricken again.
And I was and it happened even more rapidly than the last time.
My friend Karen and I were eating together in the school cafeteria when I was a senior in high school and she offered me some of her Ritz Bits crackers with peanut butter. About an hour later I was sitting in choir and felt the skin itching underneath my eyes. When I had chance to see my face in a mirror, I was shocked because they were totally puffed out. Needless to say, the school nurse allowed me to sign out (at that time I was 18 and permitted to do so).
While the Ritz Bits Peanut Butter snacks may have changed their formula over the years, I suspect because I had eaten peanut butter without an issue that was “natural,” it was a mutual ingredient in the batch that had caused my first allergy and the Ritz Bits, including possibly some weird preservative.
But down the tubes went my ability to enjoy peanut butter any way as I limited myself after that, including from my favorite (and Elvis’s) peanut butter and banana.
It was easy to avoid peanut butter, but it wasn’t so easy to stay away from peanuts as an ingredient. Especially back then, restaurants did not always disclose that they used peanut oil or other peanut products in their meals. Take the Steak Escape for example. This franchise had a location in the mall where I worked. And I loved their fries especially and sometimes would order them on my break when I was craved something salty.
But one day in my 20s I was shocked to see a sign had appeared at the Steak Escape that they used peanut oil in their fryers. All along I had been eating peanut oil and didn’t realize it. And it’s Taco John’s that airs the Steak Escape’s use of peanut oil still in the fryers there. But the franchise in Raleigh NC notes that for over 25 years the Steak Escape has been cooking their fries in peanut oil since “they taste better that way and are naturally trans fat free.”
I can tell you though, my first reaction was to worry that I was going to be OK, though I’d eaten those Steak Escape fries many times previously.
I’ve had over the years some people ask me if I know I’m still allergic. Some of them have expressed that they could not live without peanut butter and suggest I try it again. On Quora, one person suggests in a peanut allergy discussion to someone who states they are allergic to peanut butter, not peanuts, might wish to try roasting them at a low temperature that it’s the process not the peanuts, and the preservatives or another ingredient. One person suggested doing an “allergy test” with peanuts roasted at home and then in a paste with olive oil. For me personally, this is too risky to try.
But at the same time, as a mom with two kids, I of course had concerns if they could experience an allergy. In our day and age as parents, Gen Z moms have been blessed with support on how to weed through allergies when introducing our children to food. I kept food journals as my children tried new foods as babies not just to determine if there were allergies, but also to track each of my kids’ reactions to certain foods, and if they liked or dislike them, or if there was something they absolutely loved. Their faces were priceless as babies when they sampled a new taste, or one they had already tried and were smitten over.
When it came to peanut butter, our pediatrician suggested the kids try when they were each around three-years-old. Neither child had an issue with it and both love peanuts and peanut butter. In fact, I think for me it’s an ingredient within those peanut products that I ate that caused reactions (M&M’s were another one that I put on my “avoid” list, because I felt itchy after eating them, and I think it’s a cross-contamination issue with an ingredient, sadly).
Surprisingly, I am OK when I have made peanut butter sandwiches with my kids, though I do sometimes experience an itchy feeling in my throat if I smell it too much. A part of me wonders if it’s fear-based or real because the odor enough, as I’ll discuss later, triggers all of those memories of the allergy issues that occurred in my past.
Most restaurants and food manufacturers have become very proactive with noting if their products are cross-contaminated with peanuts, even if there is a slight possibility. Parents, however, should take a hands-on approach and read labels, even if their children don’t have allergies, because it’s so rampant.
But now, a new study is suggesting that children who may be at risk of developing a peanut allergy should be introduced to it between four and six months old to rid of it.
Peanut butter avoidance has caused mass hysteria in schools according to several in the medical profession. One medical sociologist Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, has said that by avoiding and being fearful of peanuts, it increases sensitization of peanuts and makes children more highly allergic. He refers to the reaction in schools to even banning treats that could potentially have a trace of peanut baked in the cake mix as “mass psychogenic illness” (MPI), also known as “epidemic hysteria,” which turns people who are emotionally adjusted into hysterical, because of fears, he says, of contamination.
Christakis gives other examples, such as one school fundraiser that sold sealed containers (tins) of “festive nuts” and parents were required to pick up their orders from the school loading dock at special times, because there were fears that the sealed tins could contaminate the classrooms.
Another incident he recalled that he felt was unnecessary was when on one school bus of 10-year-olds, someone noticed a peanut on the floor. The bus was immediately grounded, evacuated and decontaminated. The doctor wrote, “even though it was full of 10 year olds who, unlike two year olds, could actually be told not to eat food off the floor.”
In Southwest Airlines’s system, my profile notes my peanut allergy. And Southwest takes on the surface, a very staunch approach in steering clear of peanut allergens. But there are also limits to this. I had flown with them a couple of times before I was “profiled.” Prior to that, I had flown on a trip where I was offered peanuts as a snack and politely refused them, explaining I was allergic, having told them at the counter before my flight to be sure that I had a snack that was without peanuts. Based on having flown other carriers and no longer seeing peanuts offered on those flights, I was actually surprised that Southwest still offered this snack (the last time I flew with them was in 2012). I was given an alternative and that was that. The next time I flew and I asked in advance to be sure my snack was peanut free, I suddenly became a “special” case.
The ground crew told me that my children and I had priority boarding, and this occurred on every other subsequent flight with Southwest. That member of the ground crew was actually apologetic that I hadn’t received the priority treatment previously before I boarded on my last flight. They alerted the flight crew about me and all peanut snacks were banned from the flight. In fact, the flight crew told passengers before takeoff that the flight was “peanut free,” and they would not be serving peanut products due to an allergy, nor were other passengers permitted. Needless to say, there were groans throughout the plane and I didn’t want to be called out as the offending party, because you never know what person these days could be bent out of shape that they couldn’t enjoy their bag of peanuts on their jaunt from Phoenix to LA in a society where everyone gets insulted about everything.
At the same time, on my way out of one of my flights (which are short typically since Southwest doesn’t seem to have direct flights between Newark and LA and I’ve had to have layovers usually in the Midwest or Central U.S.), I saw a peanut on the floor. Whether that was from another flight and the crew inadvertently didn’t clean it up or it was from my flight, everyone was OK from the incident.
In spite of my allergy experience, I am on the fence about this reaction in schools and other establishments. So many kids are not allergic, versus those who are allergic. But of course, we don’t want to put those kids who have severe allergies at risk. However, what do these kids do out in the “real world” where there are so many potential risks and exposure to nuts? What if there had been a severely allergic child on my flight, and that peanut was discovered on the floor of the plane? Would they have grounded our flight wherever we were? I am thinking based on the story that Dr. Christakis shared in his article about the bus, likely so.
As Dr. Christakis also notes that kids are tested out of fear-based worries, and then as we know, allergy testing still isn’t the most accurate, and elicits a lot of positives that are false. This, he feels, only fuels the hysteria.
At my kids’ school a “peanut table” has been set up in the cafeteria as a place where kids who eat peanuts can be served, and then in the school the rest of the cafeteria is “peanut free.” It used to be the opposite and the kids enjoyed peanut butter at any table, but the “peanut free table.” Now the kids have asked me not to give them peanut butter because when they did have it, they couldn’t sit with their friends at lunch and instead were sent to the “peanut” table.
As a reporter for the Sparta Independent, this topic came up over a food ban at student parties that I reported on at a Board of Ed meeting, because of the fears of children inadvertently sharing a food item with a child who may be allergic.
Some parents were against the idea of a food ban entirely because of the pressures and stigmas it also placed on the child who was allergic (hence my story above with the irritation the other passengers had because they couldn’t enjoy their peanuts). They felt permitted foods should be allowed, or even just whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, bagels, cheeses and water, and that parents overall were diligent in avoiding potentially allergenic items. The lively discussion suggested that opportunities to educate kids about nutrition were being shelved because of the removal of even healthful foods from parties.
As for me, personally, I have eaten Nutella without an issue, and even Almond Butter, so my allergy is not to all tree nuts. But neither offered me the nostalgia of my favorite childhood snack. And it sure didn’t taste as good as peanut butter smothered within the rib of a celery stick like topped with raisins, like “Ants on a Log” I first enjoyed during a kindergarten party.
What’s interesting though is that soy is reportedly a more common allergen that peanut butter, yet it is used often in baby formulas and is hidden in many foods.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), most kids outgrow soy allergies by the age of 10, and can eat products with soy oil in it without an issue.
The ACAAI says that peanut is one component that must be listed on an ingredient label, under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, including the potential that peanuts may have been present somewhere during manufacture.
It’s also noted that refined peanut oil is typically safe enough for those who have peanut oil because it rids of the peanut protein, likely why I didn’t react to the Steak Escape fries.
According to the FDA’s writeup about the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, approximately 150 people in the United States die annually from food allergies, with two percent in the adult category and five percent of infant and young children nationwide classified as having food allergies. About 30,000 are hospitalized or go to the emergency room from it, though the information doesn’t indicate how many of those 30,000 are kids or adults and the same is with the 150 annual deaths from food allergens.
Dr. Christakis’ article details that although about 10,000 kids in the United States are hospitalized each year from brain injuries they sustain during sports, which can turn deadly and have in some cases, but there is never a ban on those sports, or even removing sports programs from schools altogether.
Actually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traumatic brain injury in children for sports in 2009 for those treated was 248,418 in the United States.
The CDC offers some guidelines about managing food allergies that are helpful and educating to parents.
However, like traumatic brain injuries, though the CDC has noted a rise in food allergies, there are no specifics given as to exact amount of children who deal with it, citing about 50 percent from 1997 through 2011, especially in western countries. In the United States kids with food allergies number one in 13 children according to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education).
However, the CDC numbers account for all food allergies and not just peanut butter, with four out of 100 kids reportedly having food allergies including: peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, tree nuts, shellfish, fish and soy.
Though I haven’t eaten peanut butter in years, I have searched for an alternative and I wasn’t crazy about almond butter. However, recently I discovered an interesting product WOWBUTTER that I decided to give a try. WOWBUTTER is completely manufactured with soy and touts itself as “just like peanut butter but better.”
Since I know I’m not allergic to soy when I saw it, I decided to give it a try and mixed it with one of my old favorites, mashed bananas (many prefer the bananas sliced but I have always mashed them…it’s a great way to use those overripe bananas).
I will admit that some of Christakis’ “mind over matter” type of approach to the peanut butter fears is warranted. That’s because at the opening of the jar of WOWBUTTER, my first reaction was to feel that mental freeze with the “Oh my God, avoid this,” since it smells like peanut butter, which is why I concur with him that while there are some who have very legitimate cases of peanut allergy, there are others who are so fearful of it and may have false positives, they may believe they are allergic and are not. For me, I recognize my allergy to some components, but to me the risk outweighs the benefits of eating it.
Anyway, I will say that I was “wowed” over WOWBUTTER! While it is made of soy, which is still a common allergen, if a child is not allergic to soy, I feel it’s worth a try, though of course (disclaimer here: parents who have children that are diagnosed with serious allergies or suspected food allergies should check with their doctor first). The facility where it’s made (click here for allergy information) is free of peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy and eggs. It is considered vegan, halal and non-GMO. Reportedly this product is part of the “Safe4School” initiative.
And it really tastes good! It has a creamy consistency of peanut butter, and the taste is much like what I remember.
One cool perk about the product is the availability of stickers underneath the label that can be adhered to a child’s lunch that it’s 100 percent free of peanuts and nuts, as well as the company’s website with nutrition and allergy information. Of course, there is a disclaimer that “mislabeling is illegal” and while most parents are caring and responsible, in my time, as well as other parents I know, we have dealt with parents who don’t care and break the rules….which is what ruins it for everyone.
It’s up to parents and kids to be honest and transparent for everyone’s health and well-being and if the school, daycare or other facility is peanut-free, to obey that for everyone’s sake.
In the meantime, I certainly enjoyed my WOWBUTTER adventure and plan to eat this whenever I have a “butter” and banana sandwich craving.
Click here to read more “Reflections of a Gen Z Mom.”
Stay on the scene with all of the Inside Scene stories. Click here for our Facebook Page.