They're banned from commercial flights and school lunch rooms. They're a hidden danger lurking everywhere—in processed foods, fast foods, and Pad Thai. As I've talked about before, the spate of (sometimes hyperbolic) media coverage around peanuts in the last decade has contributed to what the British Medical Journal calls an "exaggerated perception of risk." We're all on red alert and that's not a good thing.
So it's refreshing to read Jerome Groopman's excellent story (subscription required) in last week's New Yorker, which describes the ongoing research into childhood food allergies. While no one is quite sure why allergies are on the rise, Groopman says that the prevailing advice—avoid potential allergens and limit childhood exposure—may be wrong.
One expert, Dr. Gideon Lack, even says that preventing infants from being fed foods they are allergic to could prolong the risk later in life. Yes, you read that correctly. Early exposure to small amounts of peanuts may actually help prevent peanuts allergies later on. Groopman writes:
It seems pretty clear that food allergy is a condition that resulted from the environment we created.... When we shield children from dirt in the playground and from sick kids in preschool, we may limit their infections while also reducing their exposure to healthy microbes. This could make them susceptible to food allergies.
This idea is known as the "hygiene hypothesis," and the chronic underexposure to germs, microbes, and other "nonthreatening but potentially proinflammatory stimuli" has even been implicated in depression. As allergist Dr. Hugh Sampson (who features prominently in the New Yorker story) explained the theory to NPR:
We've evolved over the centuries having to deal with all these infections and we do have what we call this primitive immune system or the innate immune system that is very much involved in the way we become tolerant to things in our environment. And without these other stimulations, this system may not be operating as it had in the past.
Some manufacturers have been trying to turn back the clock by offering us food products infused with beneficial bacteria and probiotics. Katherine Ashenburg writes in The Dirt on Clean that they've even gone as far as doling out "dirt pills" to asthmatic kids.
But these options don't address the underlying problems of the antiseptic world, which Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, says, may be creating a "Nature Deficit Disorder." Kids should be kids, Louv says, even if it means getting dirty or eating a little soil from the garden.
There's certainly value in learning about animal rights, pasteurization, how peanuts are grown, and other aspects of food production. But hypervigilance about allergies isn't the right recipe for inspiring future food activists.