The nuts behind kids’ allergies

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Your kid doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special. Your kid also spends recess running and screaming, “No! Stop! Don’t rub my head with peanut butter!”

Yes, a tiny number of kids have severe peanut allergies that cause anaphylactic shock, and all their teachers should be warned, handed EpiPens and given a really expensive gift at Christmas. But unless you’re a character on “Heroes,” genes don’t mutate fast enough to have caused an 18% increase in childhood food allergies between 1997 and 2007. And genes certainly don’t cause 25% of parents to believe that their kids have food allergies, when 4% do. Yuppiedom does.

I first had this thought seven years ago, when I wrote a short story that very few people read because, unlike most people, I was kind enough not to show it to anyone. In one pointless digression, I described a future allergy epidemic in which not only nuts but malt, guar gum, gluten and corn cause kids to blow up like balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It subsides only after the FDA declares the allergies entirely psychosomatic.


You can see why I didn’t send that story to the New Yorker.

But an essay by Harvard doctor and social scientist Nicholas Christakis in the British Medical Journal -- which I read in between my perusal of Classical Philology and the IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics -- makes more or less the same argument. Christakis, who did a famous study showing that having fat friends makes you fat, wrote that parental responses “bear many of the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness.”

If you don’t think allergic reactions can be caused by mass hysteria, then you don’t know about the uncontrollable dancing that gripped thousands of Europeans between the 14th and 18th centuries, or that the South Korean government recently issued a consumer safety alert saying that electric fans can asphyxiate you if left running overnight, after news reports of several deaths. You, in short, have never looked up “mass hysteria” on Wikipedia.

Since food allergies kill about as many people as lightning strikes each year, we probably don’t need to ban peanuts from schools or put warnings on every product saying it was “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.”

When I talked to Christakis, he made it clear that -- unlike me -- he doesn’t think peanut allergies represent a mass hysteria. That’s because scientists believe in rigorous study and proof, while opinion columnists believe in saying something outrageous to get attention.

But we did agree that it is strange how peanut allergies are only an issue in rich, lefty communities.

“We don’t see this problem much in African American or poor communities. So there’s something going on here. We don’t see them in Ecuador and Guatemala,” Christakis said.


A study of Jews of similar demographics and genetics in Britain and Israel found that British kids were 10 times more likely to have peanut allergies than Israelis. That’s probably because Israeli kids have other things to be afraid of. I would like to see a study that measures one’s increased likelihood of peanut allergies if you’re an American kid named Oliver, Aidan, Spencer or Finn.

Parents may think they are doing their kids a favor by testing them and being hyper-vigilant about monitoring what they eat, but it’s not cool to freak kids out. Only 20% of kids who get a positive allergy test result need treatment. And a 2003 study showed that kids who were told they were allergic to peanuts had more anxiety and felt more physically restricted than if they had diabetes. “It’s anxiety-producing to imagine that having a snack in kindergarten could be deadly,” Christakis said. Remember, this is a demographic so easily panicked that, equipped with only circles and dots, it invented an inoculation to cooties.

A few years ago, I was at a bar without food, so I started downing peanuts. Around the third bowl, I started coughing and felt this itchiness in the back of my throat, which I quickly treated with beer. Still, for a few minutes, I was convinced that a peanut allergy was about to kill me. If the beer had not made me forget the incident, I might have avoided nuts for the rest of my life. Or, worse, bored everyone at the table with my questions about nut allergies.

So bring back nuts to schools. If parents need to panic about a food, at least go with seafood allergies. Those fish sticks are disgusting.