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Peanut Butter Panic

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Poor peanut butter. It has taken such a beating over the years.

girl eating peanut butter sandwhich

Jennifer Ginsberg: The fear of peanut allergies is so widespread that nearly all schools have become "Peanut Free Zones." I actually remember a time when I could bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school. Amazingly, I never witnessed the spontaneous death of another child from the mere scent of my sandwich.

Now we are told that if we pack an item in our child's lunchbox that not only contains peanuts, but any nuts, and anything that has been produced in a facility that processes peanuts, we may put another child into anaphylactic shock.

At my stepdaughter's private school, we were sent notes home on a weekly basis about this very topic. One note went so far as to threaten that even if our child had peanut butter for breakfast, the allergic child could still smell trace amounts on her hands and have a horrible reaction. Peanut butter is now contraband, and we are required to eliminate it entirely from our child's life because your child might have the 1 in 10,000 chance of a peanut allergy.

Strangely, "Peanut Butter Panic" is an affliction unique to upper-class Americans. When I told a group of moms in my toddler's play group that she loves peanut butter and eats delicious spoonfuls of it on a daily basis, the gasps were palpable. "But ... I didn't even think you were allowed to do that!" one mom exclaimed, clearly alarmed, as if I had given my daughter a pot brownie. The general consensus in the room was that peanut butter was dangerous, something to be avoided for the first three years of life, if not forever.

Do you ever hear about children in third-world countries having peanut allergies? Not only are these allergies nonexistent in most parts of the world, peanuts actually save the lives of starving children in Africa! A therapeutic feeding program called Project Peanut Butter has been developed by the leading authority on severe child malnutrition, Dr. Manary. Endorsed by the World Health Organization, Project Peanut Butter recognizes the amazing nutritional value of the peanut and uses it to make a formula for starving children which offers a 95 percent recovery rate.

Is it possible that the poor peanut has become a scapegoat for all of the anxieties associated with parenthood? The world can be a frightening place, and perhaps it is easier to launch a war on peanut butter than it is to bravely face the real issues which threaten our children. According to some doctors, 25 percent of parents believe their children have a serious allergy, while in actuality only 4 percent do. Roughly, the same number of Americans die each year from lightning striking them as from peanut allergies. Perhaps we should make our schools "Lightning Free Zones" as well!

It is time to lay off the poor peanut. If you happen to be the parent of a child with a legitimate peanut allergy, please do not demand that all nuts be removed from my child's life. Teaching your child that the entire world needs to accommodate him is not a realistic life lesson. It is your job to keep your child safe until they are able to do so themselves.

Peanuts are a healthy and delicious food for the overwhelming majority of children, not to mention a lifesaver for many. Let's start to give the peanut the respect it is due!

next: My Child Is Having Surgery
794 comments so far | Post a comment now
Angela November 25, 2009, 5:18 AM

Yes, allergies in general tend to be a much more significant problem in the upper-class developed world than anywhere else. The current theory is that children raised in hyperclean environments do not get the exposure to germs that their immune system needs to develop properly and their body targets harmless allergens instead. And as a nurse I am very familiar that people often falsely interpret something as an allergy or imagine a minor problem to be serious, but I can also attest to the fact that there are a lot more children who do have serious peanut allergies than there ever used to be. I have actually seen people break out in hives or even have difficulty breathing from the mere scent of peanut butter so it really does exist.

I do concede though that many schools are overreacting through their policies. If a kid in my child’s class actually had a severe peanut allergy then such precautions would actually be reasonable, but this is rarely the case. And though peanuts are the most common food allergen they are certainly not the only one. What good does it do to ban peanuts if the kid with a serious allergy reacts to strawberries? I think a case by case basis for individual classrooms would be a far better method of dealing with these problems.

J November 25, 2009, 5:42 AM

Yes, you are right it is my job to keep my child safe. When my child is in school the only way I can do that is if the school and parents help me do that. I can’t follow him around at school! SO, if ignorant parents like yourself choose to ignore the threat of allergies how do I keep him safe? Can’t your daughter eat peanut butter at home? Have you spoiled her so much that she HAS to have what she wants regardless of what it may do to another child? Are you not teaching your daughter tolerance? My son has another more severe allergy than peanuts and no, it will not be banned at school but if it is not banned in his class and if parents like you make light of it - how will I keep him safe then? It seems to me you are so put out by the thought of your daughter not getting her way that you would risk a child dying. Who is coddling their child now?

PlumbLucky November 25, 2009, 6:08 AM

I am glad that you have no personal experience with peanut allergies, or any other severe food allergy, and pray that you never do.

Not many other food allergies that I am aware of cause a reaction due to airborne particles. That is why its all about peanunts. There are more allergies now than ever for whatever reason. I daresay we don’t hear about them in third world countries, I fear it because those with them don’t survive childhood.

So your child gets what she wants, the allergic child be damned? That’s nice. If your child were the “1 in 10,000” with the problem, wouldn’t YOU be the one screaming that people were selfish? Wouldn’t you be the one protesting that you shouldn’t have to homeschool in order to keep your child safe?

Being stuck with/sticking yourself with an epi-pen so that you can breathe is NO picnic (no, my allergy is not to peanuts. Its not airborne. I have a MIL who didn’t “believe” in allergies and one occassion didn’t see it fit to tell me that there was shellfish in a dish. She has since changed her tune on whether allergies exist or not) and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Jen November 25, 2009, 7:45 AM

I think it is extremism to bad peanut butter point blank from campuses, considering the risk of allergy is not as high as people think. However, if an individual child has an anaphylaxis risk then individual arrangements could be made. The fact is most children who are told they are allergic are not. And a food allergy can develop at any time.

Banning all nuts is not the answer, because peanut oil is used in so many foods. However, a case by case approach for children who have medical proof from an allergy specialist of a severe reaction potential would definitely be warranted.

On the other hand, I live in one of these high socioeconomic areas and the same people who claim multiple food allergies refuse to vaccinate their children, putting my son with congenital heart disease at risk!

chris November 25, 2009, 7:45 AM

I’m glad my children school doesn’t have these rules because my son who is now 14 and in 9th grade will only eat pb&j’s or pb&bananna sandwiches! And I have packed his lunch everyday since he was in kindergarten. I know that his school has setup seperate lunch tables where the kids with allegery eat so I guess that’s good enough.

Sara November 25, 2009, 8:10 AM

I’ve got no problems with peanut bans if there is a legitimate reason for one, a child with airborne peanut allergies. I had a student that had an aide to ensure that his environment was peanut free and everything was wiped down prior to his use because his allergy was so bad. In that circumstance (where a kid truly has that severe of an allergies) it is completely appropriate for the class or school to have to take those precautions.

However, in most cases as long as a child doesn’t touch or eat the peanuts it’s not an issue and extremely basic precautions are all that’s needed (telling kids not to share snacks or lunches and wiping down tables before an allergic child sits down), but instead of that they’re banning peanuts from the entire school excessively.

Anonymous November 25, 2009, 8:12 AM

My older brother would ONLY eat PB sandwiches for lunch at school, right from kindergarten all the way through until high school. Thankfully, the PB paranoia wasn’t around then. Even when my younger brother (now 15) was younger, there were only bans on PB if there was someone in the class who was allergic. Now, it’s school-wide almost everywhere. I was in class several years with a boy who was allergic to all tree nuts, but NOT peanut butter. They weren’t banned from the class/school, he just had to be careful what he ate and not trade lunches and things. His allergy was severe, but his parents taught him properly what to do and made the teacher aware of what might happen, and that was the end of it. And guess what? He never had any reaction in any of the years I knew him in school!
It’s nuts. I get banning it in the classroom if one or more students is severely allergic. Banning it from the school is extreme. But no school should be able to dictate what parents feed their children at home, which seems to me to be a main point in this article. If your daughter loves PB so much, let her eat all she wants at home, and get her to wash her hands before she leaves, and the world will be fine!

J- read the article. Your opinions contradict what the writer said, so maybe you should read before you speak.

gbmonkey November 25, 2009, 8:26 AM

Amen sister!! BTW I believe she if following all the rules and did not say that she was sending her child to school with peanut butter but she was still eating it at home because she loved it.

Jen November 25, 2009, 10:39 AM

Banning peanuts from an entire school is absolutely ridiculous. Peanut butter is a STAPLE food in many households, especially in this economy. Many parents rely on PB&J sandwiches to fill the bellies of their children.

If a child is so deathly allergic to peanuts that merely smelling said nut or being near the nut will cause death, maybe that child doesn’t belong in a public school setting. Keep that child at home and protect him yourself…don’t expect someone else to protect your child…it’s YOUR job.

Perhaps parents of children with severe allergies should teach their children how to avoid the substances they are allergic to instead of expecting every other child in the school to avoid it as well.

9to5to9 November 25, 2009, 11:38 AM

“One note went so far as to threaten that even if our child had peanut butter for breakfast, the allergic child could still smell trace amounts on her hands and have a horrible reaction.”

I’m puzzled as to how this is a threat. Do you feel threatened if people ask children to wash their hands regularly to prevent the spread of flu?

In our family, it’s a factual statement, not a threat. A child who eats peanut butter and then fails to wash his or her hands can transmit peanut oil to an object he or she touches. If my child touches that object, he will have a reaction. It’s happened before.

And, yes, we DO teach our child to avoid things he’s allergic to. He’s only 6 and amazingly good at it. We’re not “peanut paranoid,” though I’d note that it’s not paranoia if something really can hurt you. We’re appropriately cautious. And, yes, it’s my job to teach him how to protect himself, but it’s also the school system’s job to provide him a safe environment in which to learn. That’s not my opinion. That’s the law.

As part of complying with that law, peanut snacks have been banned in his classroom the past two years. There’s simply no way to avoid contact contamination issues in that setting short of stopping class to wash every kid’s hands and every desk. That doesn’t seen like good use of instructional time to me.

PlumbLucky, I had the SAME experience with in-laws who didn’t “believe in” food allergies - as if it’s a religious tenet - until they saw my son in the hospital in the aftermath of anaphylaxis. Sadly, that’s what it took to convince them.


Lynne November 25, 2009, 1:54 PM

Schools are getting way too picky. I’m glad my kid is grown up and I don’t have to deal with school politics anymore.

Anonymous November 25, 2009, 2:03 PM

If a kid is that allergic to peanuts maybe he/she shouldn’t be in school. Why should most kids suffer because of one kid?

AreYouSerious November 25, 2009, 2:24 PM

I find this article and many of the responses to it ridiculous! My son went to school with a boy who was severly allergic to peanuts for two years. I checked labels, I got creative with sandwich options, and everyone got through just fine. Cream cheese and jelly is a great alternative to PB. I’ve tasted a bunch of really good soy alternatives too which would work fine for all of you who insist your kid won’t eat anything but peanut butter—- great job getting your kids to try new things and eat balanced meals by the way!!

My son didn’t suffer because of a lack of peanut butter and more importantly- his good friend didn’t break out in hives or go into shock because of a classmate bringing in trail mix. Any minor inconvenience I might have had to deal with was nothing in comparison to what that child’s mother has to face every day to keep her kids safe. This problem isn’t going away. Peanut allergies (legitimate ones) are on the rise so get with the program, hit the deli, and stop your crying!!

Erica November 25, 2009, 4:46 PM

Seriously the people that think that peanut allergies are not a big deal need to experience a child not breathing due to a peanut reaction my daughter is allergic to peanuts and I thank her school and all the parents for understanding this

Jenn November 25, 2009, 5:48 PM

I agree, I think a complete ban of PB is absurd. There have been studies done and they have concluded:
• A rash may occur where the skin is touched by peanut butter but a dangerous reaction will not result
unless the peanut butter enters the mouth, nose, or eyes.
• The rash will get better when washed with soap and water, and when Benadryl® is given.
• Just smelling peanut butter will not cause an allergic reaction because there is no peanut protein
in an odor.

There are better ways to tackle this without banning peanut butter i.e. no food sharing, students wash hands before and after eating, or even a separate area where no peanuts are allowed.

I’m not trying to be insensitive, but seriously there are so many foods that kids can be allergic too i.e. strawberries, eggs, milk, fish, and others. Do you we ban those too?

Onespot Allergy November 26, 2009, 6:03 AM

Your article was brought to my attention through a food allergy group. Given your education and professional training, I am shocked that you would post a poorly researched and completely insensitive article. The consequence of a severe allergic reaction is brain damage or death. If I could help your child avoid that, I would do so graciously, rather than complain about it. I doubt you would voice your arguments to the face of a food allergy parent. In my opinion, your online posts should reflect that discretion as well.
Elizabeth Goldenberg, President
Onespot Allergy

Tanya November 26, 2009, 7:48 AM

I am surprised that you can take pride in your career and still present a woefully uninformed article about allergies. It is not unusual for those who are not directly touched by a food allergy in their house to be ignorant of the impact it has. It is sad that as a person who speaks to a large audience you would perpetuate misinformation. I would not dare to speak to the complications of living with a disability that was not present in my life without proper research. Yes, it often seems overly cautious to ban peanut products from school. Consider this: at home I can keep a close eye on my child, and respond quickly to an allergic reaction. In the lunchroom my child can accidentally get peanut butter on her hand from the last child’s lunch, pull her hair out of her eyes and get peanut residue on her face, by her eyes. Now she is getting hives, which are itchy, so she rubs them, tranferring peanut residue into her eye, which starts an life threatening allergic reaction. At home, I would have seen the hives and wiped her off, reaction avoided. At school there are 50+ students in the lunchroom, needing help opening their juice box, milk, banana, fruit cup, wiping up spills, getting a napkin, etc. There are typically two adults. They will not be able to spot a reaction in time to prevent it from escalating. I am protecting my child by asking for caution at school. I am also protecting your child from having to watch a peer die in front of them, which is scary for anyone, but especially for a child. I try to keep my requests reasonable, we don’t want to inconvenience anyone. We also do not want to bury our child. Please, before you increase the difficulty of our lives by offering such biased opinion without benefit of education, think of how you are impacting the lives of innocent children, who just want to be normal. Show a bit of journalistic responsibility. Thanks.

thepsychobabble November 26, 2009, 7:59 PM

I think a school-wide ban is a tad extreme. As is asking parents not to feed peanut butter at home, prior to school.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to take it on a class by class basis? Like if there’s ACTUALLY a kid with an allergy? And not, “Well, there might possibly be someone who might maybe develop an allergy, so we’d better ban it!”

Elliot Middlelton November 26, 2009, 11:22 PM

I think this is a fair representation of the misunderstanding and anger among non-food allergic parents who are not happy about having to adjust their child’s life to help another. However, your article is filled with ignorance about what the actual dangers are. As an academic allergist, allow me to illuminate a few points:

1) Just because there was no one that you knew growing up that had a peanut allergy does not mean that it didn’t exist. Your sheltered world is nor representative of the general population, and while there are more people with peanut allergy presently, there were plenty of them when you went to school. So just stop with that line of thought—you sound foolish

2) The vast majority of peanut allergic kids do not need to do anything but avoid ingesting peanut themselves. Airborne reactions have been largely disproved (Johns Hopkins study in 2004) though in EXCEPTIONALLY RARE instances. Contact reactions do happen, especially in younger kids who do not wash their hands, and while there is a realistic danger from this route, it may not affect all peanut allergic children. The problem is we don’t want to figure out who can and cannot withstand it, so to protect against the possibility of a reaction, peanut free schools and peanut free tables have been proposed to protect the allergic. While there is not great evidence these work, they provide comfort to a parent who is worried about exposure leading to a reaction while the child is at school, and likely do provide some level of protection for the child. I try to work with the school and the class to come to an understanding that certain foods may place a child at risk. Certainly foods that may or might contain peanut are less of a concern, and I agree with your thoughts on that small particular point.

3) Again, just because in other parts of the world there is no peanut allergy, or limited peanut allergy, just how does that apply to the US, where it is quite a real issue? Do the people in other parts of the world doubt polio and cholera are real just because it doesn’t exist in the US? Again, you are letting your ignorance get the best of you, and your argument is just, well, stupid and foolish. The expression of allergy is multi-factorial, and while environment may have a lot to do with rates of allergy in a society, absence of peanut allergy elsewhere is not evidence that this is some fabrication of parents to personally make it more difficult for your kid to eat at school.

4) You are exceptionally insensitive to suggest that peanut allergy is some scapegoat. Yes, there are some parents of peanut allergic kids who go to far, and are way to fanatical compared to the actual level of risk that the allergen poses to their child (a wrapped snickers on the other side of a room is not a weapon aimed at the peanut allergic child!), but this is a reflection on the parent’s personality, and not the actual problem with their child. You are supposedly a trained therapist—I am shocked that this point is lost on you. You are angry at the reaction and instead lash out at the problem. Food allergy is real, and there are lots of families who deal with it rationally. There are a lot who don’t and I think that is the root of your misguided concern in this situation.

I’ll be honest—there are a lot of crappy allergists with no clue how to deal with food allergy, who over-test and falsely label someone peanut allergic on the basis of a positive test without a good history of reaction. This isn’t helping things, and it is causing some unnecessary policy implication for some children. We’re working to correct that problem, but the fact remains that a lot of these families are not being well served by someone who has no idea how to make the diagnosis, and they were given wrong information. This has to some extent falsely elevated estimated prevalence, though we are seeing increases in real, bona-fide, severely peanut allergic kids. But i urge you to go sit down for coffee with a mom of a classmate of your stepdaughter who has peanut allergy. Hear her story, put yourself in her shoes, and think what you would do to protect your child. Look at what you are doing with this now to help your stepdaughter now? Can you imagine if a doctor told you that even a tiny morsel of peanut protein could potentially kill her? What would you do? Would you want other kids to bring something like that near your child?

So think twice about maybe recanting your statements about the crazed parents who are “scapegoating” peanut to soothe their own anxiety (or are you projecting your problems), and think twice about how upset and hurt you would be if some parent with a national blog wrote ” If you happen to be the parent of a child with a legitimate peanut allergy, please do not demand that all nuts be removed from my child’s life.” Is it such a big deal for her to not eat peanut products from 8:30-3:30 M-F while at school? Is this really a demand that you take this out of her life, or an inconvenience to you?

Claudia November 27, 2009, 1:48 AM

The incredulous tone of this article is disturbing to read, as I am in the camp of those who are face death in the face of my severe allergies. I was hospitalized overnight and required two IV drip medications (which put me at risk for cardiac arrest) and needed 4 day follow up medication due to a severe allergy to latex fruit that evolved from a general latex allergy. Most of us who live with life threatening allergies get worse, and not better with age. Repeated exposure to allergens put us at significant risk, and in my case I ended up in the hospital with anaphylytic shock due to a bite of a contaminated sandwich.

If you are getting notes from your daughter’s school, then there is probably a concerned parent of a child who has a life threatening allergy attending. This is something to be taken seriously, because the letter is correct in saying that even a whiff of the smell CAN trigger anaphylytic shock in some cases. I’d hate to imagine what would happen if someone decided, once again, that my allergy to certain foods is make believe and I wasn’t two minutes away from a hospital.

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