Why Have Peanut Allergies Tripled in a Decade?

Remember when we were allowed to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school? What happened? How did we get to the point where peanut allergies are such a threat that children in many schools are no longer allowed to pack a PB&J?

It’s alarming. The rate of childhood peanut allergies has more than tripled from 1997 to 2008, according to the results of a nationwide  survey; the data was reported in the most recent issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Led by Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers surveyed a total of 5,300 households by telephone in 2008. The survey was previously conducted in 1997 and 2002. The prevalence of combined peanut or tree nut allergies in children was 2.1 percent in 2008, compared to 0.6 percent in 1997. The authors admit that there are limitations in the self-reported nature of a telephone survey, and identifying “true” allergy. However, the rate of childhood peanut allergy estimated in the current study is similar to results from studies using different methods in Canada, Australia and the UK.

“These results show that there is an alarming increase in peanut allergies, consistent with a general, although less dramatic, rise in food allergies among children in studies reported by the CDC,” said Dr. Sicherer. “The data underscore the need for more study of these dangerous allergies.” He continued, “Our research shows that more than three million Americans report peanut and/or tree nut allergies, representing a significant health burden. The data also emphasize the importance of developing better prevention and treatment strategies.”

Several theories exist as to why there could be a spike in food allergies. The main theory is the “hygiene hypothesis” which proposes that modern day “clean living” replete with anti-bacterial this and germ-killing that–and the use of medications to prevent and quickly treat infections–leaves our immune system in a state that is more prone to attack harmless proteins like those in foods, pollens, and animal dander. The millions of bacteria and viruses that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system–remove that and it throws our immune systems seriously off kilter.

Dr. Guy Delespesse, a professor at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Medicine, agrees that it all comes down to excessive cleanliness. Our limited exposure to bacteria concerns Dr. Delespesse, who is also director of the Laboratory for Allergy Research at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal. “There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases,” says Dr. Delespesse. “The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime.”

I am sure most of us in industrialized countries are grateful to live in a time and place where disease-producing squalor isn’t rampant, but it’s become increasingly evident that we are living in a culture that has become over-zealous with our hygiene. When wild dolphins start showing signs of consumer anti-bacterial agents in their blood and schools can no longer allow peanuts, peanuts, in the lunchboxes of children, it seems time for a shift in thinking. It’s hard to shake the fear (of dirt, filth, germs and disease) that big corporations pound into us the consumers (in 2008, Americans spent over $5 billion on household cleaning products)–but we are swinging too far in the other direction.  Do you think we can find a happy medium?

Eating Dirt, Embracing Germs
DIY Food Intolerance & Allergy Test

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Jennifer C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Great article. Thanks.

Sheri P.
Sheri P.4 years ago

This is crazy! I agree that antibiotics are way overused and it's not good for our immune systems...

Danielle Herie
Danielle Herie4 years ago


Ginger B.
Ginger B.5 years ago

I agree with Kelly--you have to read the labels. Only yesterday, I bought a packaged Asian-style lunch with rice noodles and a heavy sauce. The photo looked great and the label advetised its healthfulness, also I bought it from our local organic foods store. I have peanut, Brazil nut, almond, pistacheo and coconut allergies--they give me violent leg cramps that last about 15 minutes. Other nuts don't bother me. I didn't dream that an Asian type packaged food would have peanuts in it, and didn't read the label. Fortunately, while reading its cooking instructions, I decided to scan the microscopic :-( print of listed ingredients. It had peanut bits in it!! At least my husband enjoyed the food.

Kelley H.
Kelley H.5 years ago

I was really surprised by this article. I have had a nut allergy my entire life, not just peanuts, but all nuts. I am thirty four and I was in grade school through the 80s, but pretty much all I had to do was avoid nuts and I was okay. My parents and I never made a big deal over the fact that I couldn't eat peanut butter or Snickers or Butterfingers. Even now, I just read the labels and I ask questions before eating unfamiliar homemade goods. Thankfully, I have never spent a day in the hospital or in the ER because of my allergies. As a health care professional, I DO feel that the use of antibiotics has gone crazy. Back in the day, we only got prescribed antibiotics for things like urinary tract infections, strep throat, or sinus infections, in other words, REAL bacterial infections. I think our best defense is education. For those who have nut allergies and/or their kids have them, teach your kids early on how to read labels and what foods might contain hidden nuts and how to recognize an allergic reaction and how to ask for help. Also, be educated about antibiotic use. They are not for colds and flu. They should only be used when there is a bacterial infection present and they should be taken according to the doctor's instructions. Peace and good health to all!

Kunal A.
Past Member 5 years ago

Banning peanuts, latex and menthol in schools? Really? At the risk of sounding facetious, "Guns don't kill people, peanuts do!".

Ann Eastman
Ann Eastman5 years ago

Not just increasing peanut allergies in school either. Several schools in my neck of the woods post signs disallowing any peanut, latex, or menthol products on site. That was last school year- the list might have grown since then.

Mindy F.
Melinda Fletcher5 years ago

It's the GMO foods. They toss in the antibiotic red herring to keep people off the right track..while they continue to get more GMOs approved. Every American has eaten GMO food in some type of food product. Yes, even YOU.

kenneth m.
kenneth m.5 years ago

just another reason for lawyers to sue

Kim C.
Kim C.5 years ago

Allergies run in my family, both sides. I figured out I had a perfume allergy when I was 18 or so. I found out I have a few more allergies since then. My daughter has allergies and it isn't because we had a spotless clean and sterile house either. We had pets too.

The home cleaning industry has gone way over board. People don't need floors that have been sterilized. Plain old hot soapy water will clean kitchen counters even if you have had meat on them. What's more, all these super duper cleaning products are very expensive. The over use of antibiotics every where had most likely made these deadly allergies much more prevalent.