Why Are There So Many Peanut Allergies?

3 million people in the U.S. are allergic to peanuts

Peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies in both children and adults and it’s also one of the eight most allergenic foods known to cause severe allergy attacks. Peanut allergy is considered the most common food-induced cause of a potentially life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. Even the smallest amount of peanuts can cause an allergic reaction, so it’s important to know how to avoid exposure to peanut products and be able to spot the symptoms of an allergic reaction if a peanut product is ingested.

A peanut allergy is a type of immune response triggered by ingesting products containing one or more of the peanut proteins. The immune system normally reacts to allergens by protecting us from any kind of a negative response. However, the immune response of an individual with a food allergy is oversensitive. When faced with an allergen, the system reacts by releasing substances that cause allergy symptoms.

Peanut Allergy Quick Facts

  • Even trace amounts of peanut can cause an allergic reaction.
  • Cross-contact can also cause allergy problems – avoid cooking with peanut oil and foods that have cross-contact with peanuts.
  • Restaurants can be high-risk areas due to possible cross-contamination.
  • Read all product label and check “may also contain” info for unexpected peanut sources (see list below).
  • Check safety alerts for items that may have been recalled due to peanut contamination.
  • If you or a loved one has a peanut allergy, always carry an epinephrine auto-injector to counteract unintentional exposure to peanuts.

People with peanut allergy may also want to consider being tested for a tree nut allergy. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology report that 25% to 40% of peanut who have peanut allergy are also allergic to tree nuts.

Peanut Allergy Symptoms

The most common cause of peanut allergy is direct contact by eating peanuts or peanut-containing foods. People with a peanut allergy may experience an allergic reaction to products containing peanuts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after consuming the allergen.

Most Common Symptoms of Peanut Allergies

  • Runny nose
  • Tightening of the throat
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Itching
  • Skin redness
  • Rash (hives)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness

In severe cases, peanut allergies can also result in anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe, and life-threatening allergic reaction that can involve several areas of the body. If you have a peanut allergy, it is recommended to keep an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times. An epinephrine injection is the only treatment for anaphylaxis.

Avoiding Exposure to Peanut Products

Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction. So, in order to prevent an allergic reaction to peanuts, you must avoid peanuts and peanut products in all forms. This list contains some of the more common food items you will find peanuts in:

  • Archaic oil, Arachis, Arachis hypogaea
  • Artificial nuts
  • Beer nuts
  • Cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extruded peanut oil
  • Goober peas
  • Ground nuts
  • Mandelonas
  • Mixed nuts
  • Monkey nuts
  • Nut pieces
  • Nutmeat
  • Peanuts (all varieties)
  • Peanut butter
  • Peanut flower
  • Peanut paste
  • Peanut protein hydrolysate
  • Peanut sauce and syrup

Additionally, peanuts are often found in the following foods and cuisines:

  • Chinese, Thai, and Mexican foods
  • Chocolate bars and other candies
  • Cakes, pastries, pies, and cookies
  • Ice cream and frozen yogurt
  • Granola bars, trail mixes, cereals

Special Considerations for Children with Peanut Allergies

One of the things that makes this allergy so challenging is the fact that casual skin contact with a peanut product may also cause an allergic reaction. Since an allergic reaction can be triggered by skin contact, people with peanut allergy need to take extra precautions to protect themselves. For example, if a child sits at a lunch table where someone had peanut butter—and traces of that product are still present—they could have an allergic reaction by touching the affected area on the table and then rubbing their eyes with that finger. Because of this, several schools and child care facilities are now “nut free” and require children to avoid bringing products containing peanuts or peanut products.

The other issues facing people with a peanut allergy are cross-contact and inhalation. Cross-contact can happen when a food is exposed to peanuts during processing or handling. For example, a kitchen tool (i.e., a spoon) that was previously used to stir a mixture with peanut oil is now being used to serve a “non-peanut” meal. Even though the meal does not contain peanut products, the spoon (with peanut oil on it) has now introduced the allergen into the food. Inhalation of dust or aerosols containing peanuts may cause an allergic reaction.

Recently, scientists found that giving peanut products to babies could help prevent peanut allergy. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics came up with new guidelines that detail use of ‘infant safe’ peanut to prevent allergy. There are three guidelines based on clinical features reflecting the risk of having or developing peanut allergy.

Regulations Related to Peanut Allergies

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is primarily responsible for enforcing the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which requires that food labels clearly identify the food source names of any ingredients that are one of the major food allergens (including peanuts) or contain any protein derived from a major food allergen.

The law further explains that the name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear in parentheses following the name of the ingredient or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement.

Unfortunately, the FALCPA’s labeling requirement does not apply to products that may be contaminated due to cross-contact. The FDA does not regulate statements such as: “may contain peanut,” or “manufactured on shared equipment with peanut,” or “manufactured in the same facility as peanut,” so there is no guarantee that products labeled as such are safe.