Nut Allergies: Why the Rise, and Can They Be Prevented?
September 10, 2011 11 Comments
Happy Saturday! Now let’s talk about nut allergies. Seems like every other kid these days is allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts. How come only that one crazy kid with the perma bed-head had a peanut allergy when I went to elementary school? Lets first start with some definitions:
- Tree Nuts: almonds, cashews, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, pine nuts (pignolia nuts), pistachios, and walnuts.
- Peanuts: Peanuts are actually a legume, although most people who are allergic to tree nuts are also allergic to peanuts and vice versa.
- Seeds: While sesame seeds are common and potential allergens, sunflower and pumpkin seeds very rarely cause an allergic reaction. Use sunflower seed butter and pumpkin seeds as nutritious alternatives when tree nut, peanut, or sesame seed allergies are present.
Why are nut allergies so common now?
According to WebMD, Peanut allergies more than tripled from 1997 to 2008:
- o.6% of kids had allergies to peanuts in 1997
- 2.1% of kids had allergies to peanuts in 2008
- 1.3% of adults today have peanut allergies
Theory #1: The Hygiene Hypothesis
Perhaps too much hand sanitizer, too many antibiotics, and all the “clean living” which is preventing natural infections is dumbing down our immune systems, and diminishing its ability to deal with harmless proteins like those in peanuts, tree nuts, animal dander, and pollen.
So… do kids who grow up on farms have fewer allergies? Actually yes! Believe it or not, city living is much cleaner than farm life. Youngsters who grow up on farms are 30-50% less likely to develop allergies and asthma compared their urban cousins. Despite city pollution and grime, rural households have more “good germs” found in bacteria-laden mattresses and microbe-laced bedrooms helping kids develop resistance to allergies and asthma. Much of this was confirmed in a study in the New England Journal of Medicine published in February comparing bacteria and microbes in rural, urban, and suburban households. The greater the number of microbes (farmhouse), the lower the incidence of allergies and asthma.
Theory #2: The Modern Way Nuts Are Processed
Most nuts these days are roasted. Back in the day, blanching, boiling, and raw consumption of nuts was more common. Dry-roasting at high temperatures appears to degrade the carcinogenic aflatoxins found in peanuts, which is something we DO want to do. However, roasting peanuts changes the sugar and makes the protein more stable to digestion, and easier for the immune system to attack thus making them more allergenic. Interestingly, Asians predominantly eat boiled peanuts, and peanut allergies are much less common among Asian populations.
Are nut and other allergies preventable?
Possibly. Here are the best strategies for decreasing the odds of allergies in your mini-me, especially if allergies run in the family:
- Consider a move to a rural area during pregnancy and the early years of your child’s life.
- Snag a dander-laden pet or two during pregnancy and your baby’s infancy (if you yourself aren’t allergic).
- Spend lots of time outdoors during your child’s early years, exposing them to a wealth of trees, grass, bushes, and flowers.
- As a mom, do everything in your power to breastfeed or obtain breastmilk from a donor, especially for the first 4 months. This builds up the infant’s immune system.
- If nut allergies run in the family, research is tending to favor moderate and RAW nut consumption during pregnancy. There’s no guarantee, but this is worth a shot.
- And this just in!! Pregnant women consuming greater quantities of omega-3 fatty acids (found in walnuts, flaxseed oil, and supplements) cause the growing baby’s gut to become more permeable therefore enabling bacteria and new substances to pass through the lining of the gut and triggering the baby’s immune response and the production of antibodies. End result: a better functioning immune system and less likelihood of allergies.
And finally, and interesting tidbit about…. Almond Extract. Thankfully, the best way to flavor your cookies and frosting does not actually come from almonds. Even “pure almond extract” is made from peach or apricot pits. So almond-allergic folks can taste almonds without the allergic reaction!
Other thoughts on nut allergies or ways to prevent/ deal with them?