Today we will learn about nut allergies, one of the most severe allergies in the world. Let’s begin at the beginning.
In the early 20th century a scientist named Charles Richet showed that it was very difficult to create an anaphylactic response to foods that were eaten. Our stomach acids neutralize most allergic substances in the foods during digestion. In ancient Egyptian times, anaphylactic responses were recorded in artwork on the walls of Egyptian tombs. The reactions were depicted as a response to bee stings, not food.
In case you were not familiar with the word anaphylactic, it means a whole body response to a substance where the throat closes up, breathing becomes labored, and the person becomes panicky. There can be an accompanied rash as well.
Charles Richet and his contemporary Richard Otto showed it was possible to produce an allergic reaction to any protein by injecting it rather than eating it. Injecting foods by needle is not natural to humans so our body reacts strongly in order to reject it and protect the body. This is the body’s normal immune response.
In the early 1900s, peanut oil was added to vaccine serums in order to extend their shelf life and make them more effective long term. One’s reactions to the injected virus or disease were very mild when the peanut oil was added into the injection serum. The pharmaceutical manufacturers found the peanut an excellent and inexpensive tool for priming the immune system to fight off the virus or disease used in the injection. Unfortunately, there is a risk of sensitivity in the body to peanuts and other nuts. Usually the sensitivity is from the protein in the nuts.
Early on, only about 10% of the population would react to the injected serums. Some had no reactions to the injected protein and oils but would have reactions after eating the nuts a few days after the vaccinations were given. They would have fevers, rashes, diarrhea, joint pain, and breathing difficulties. The symptoms were almost identical to the allergic reactions from bee stings. Occasionally they were fatal.
The pharmaceutical industry makes a lot of profit from vaccines and this was the reason peanut oil was never taken out of the equation.
When people have repeated vaccinations, the subsequent eating of peanuts and some tree nuts proved to be stimuli for an allergic reaction.
The development of the Epipen in the 1980s proved to be a gold mine for the pharmaceutical industry as well because it is the only known antidote to an anaphylactic attack. An Epipen has the hormone epinephrine in it, which is a chemical that narrows blood vessels and opens the airway into the lungs.
In the past 30 years there has been an increase in allergies across the board. This is due to the increase in vaccine scheduling in children.
Most people who have a peanut allergy also have an allergy to at least one tree nut. Let’s look at the macronutrients in peanuts and tree nuts to see the similarities and differences.
Peanuts are actually considered a ground nut, in the same family as peas, beans, and legumes. When I see the word peanut, I cross out the word nut in my mind to remind myself that it is in the pea family. However, the peanut pod or shell is ready to be picked when the outside is dried and brown, like the shells of tree nuts. Peanuts have about 66% fat, 17% carbohydrates, and 17% protein. Because there are more varieties of tree nuts, there are more differences in the macronutrients of different tree nuts. Tree nuts are from 69%-90% fat, with the composition of the protein and carbohydrates making up the rest of the percentages. There is generally more fat in tree nuts than in ground nuts, and we can taste that. For example, when we eat a macadamia nut it tastes more fatty and creamier than an almond or a peanut.
As stated earlier, if someone is allergic to peanuts, findings show they are usually allergic to at least one tree nut. If someone is allergic to one tree nut and not peanuts, findings show there is a higher chance of being allergic to other types of tree nuts. This is due to the similarity in their protein structures. Proteins have the same 20 amino acids building them up, but they are arranged differently to make different proteins.
To test for peanut allergies, an allergy clinic will draw blood or perform a skin prick or skin scratch test. For tree nuts that test low or negative but have never been eaten before, an allergist may consider oral food challenges under the clinic’s supervision. That is helpful for determining whether those particular nuts trigger allergic reactions.
When assessing food labels on products, consumers must learn to read the entire label, front and back. Some refined vegetable oils will have peanut oil in the mix, but not say so in the ingredient label. We must look carefully to see if there is a sentence on the label that states the product was made in a plant with soy, nuts, wheat, egg, etc. This may be important for cross contamination as well. Some nut particles may be floating in the air in a manufacturing food plant and land on other areas. If a person is severely allergic to nuts, this label reading is key.
Some public and private schools have a no-nut policy, but in my experience I haven’t met anyone who has had an allergic reaction from other people eating nuts in the same room. One study showed that only bars and restaurants that had nuts and nut shells all over the floors and let the guests shell their nuts and throw the remains on the floor had particles of nuts floating in the air that could be ingested by someone who is allergic.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, peanuts and other food allergies have increased 21% in the past 10 years. This can be quite challenging for families. Folks with food allergies have to be quite vigilant around social events involving food.
But, there is hope. Recent clinical trials in the US and Australia have been experimenting with different types of oral reintroduction therapies.
Stanford Medical School in northern California has been using oral immunotherapy for about a decade. It is a way to desensitize patients slowly and safely, but it takes trust, commitment, and patience on the subject’s part. It can be scary to eat tiny amounts of the food one is allergic to. That is exactly what patients are doing under supervision. In the clinical trials the dosage begins with patients eating about ¼ of a peanut and slowly working up through time to 16 peanuts a day. The maintenance is about 1 peanut a day. The desensitizing process allows folks to eat out in restaurants and in others’ homes without anxiety that they will have a reaction. It opens up their lives to adventures in eating again. Currently Stanford Medical School is testing a vaccine approach for peanut allergies in adults and is actively seeking participants in their clinical trials.
In Melbourne, Australia, the research includes reintroducing peanuts into the diet by adding peanut powder with probiotic powder into other foods. The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has seen 2/3 of children treated with this approach successfully desensitized. Even four years after the treatment ended, the children have had no adverse effects when eating peanuts. Rather than avoid the food one is allergic to, this program is designed to reprogram the immune system’s response to it, and eventually one develops a tolerance to it.
The takeaways for this nut allergy phenomenon video are:
- If you think you or a loved one has a nut allergy, get tested by an allergy clinic with blood work, scratch testing, and discuss elimination or reintroduction protocols.
- Read food labels in their entirety. Remember-knowledge is power.
- There is hope and help out there for folks who have peanut and tree nut allergies.