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1 June, 2005

Where did it come from?

So far as I'm aware, nut allergies were very rare when I was a child in the 1970s.  It wasn't until at least the 1990s that I noticed foods labeled as 'may contain nuts', presumably as legislation was introduced.  Now it's a routine warning on packaging.  The impression it conveys is that nut allergies are a massive social problem, affecting a significant proportion of the population.  Is that really the case, or is the scale of the problem inadvertently exaggerated by companies merely having to protect themselves against litigation?

A quick glance at the top results on Google informs me that the number of people reported as being affected by peanut allergies in the USA doubled between 1997 and 2002, from 0.4% of survey respondents to 0.8%. Not a huge proportion, but in absolute numbers, across an entire national population, quite a few people; a related article says peanut allergy accounts for 100 deaths and 15,000 visits to ER (UK: A&E/Casualty) departments each year in the USA.

Contrary to understandable parental fears, only three pre-teens are known to have died in the UK, over several years. Most fatal reactions seem to occur in teenagers and those in their early twenties, presumably due to less rigorous care with their diets.

I still wonder why the numbers seem to be increasing, though. Two of the reasons proposed in that first article are that peanuts have an increased allergenicity when roasted and that children are eating peanuts when their immune systems are immature, but both of those factors have always applied – children have been eating peanuts, roasted or otherwise, for decades.

Could it be that it's always been a problem, but diagnosis has recently improved? Perhaps, though I'm unaware of there having been huge numbers of unexplained anaphylactic reactions in the past.
Could it be that people are just more susceptible to allergies nowadays? Why? Atmospheric pollutants? Antibiotics in household goods?

Note I said 'scale' in the first paragraph, referring to the number of people affected, not 'severity', referring to the effects on individual sufferers. I don't mean to belittle the impacts on their health and lifestyles, I'm just questioning how many of them there are.
I think that's the problem when considering it from a sociological perspective: the number of people affected does seem to be very small, and even amongst them, the risk of death is slight, yet it could happen, so what amounts to overstating the risk may be a sensible response for those individuals.

Let's just avoid the perception that a quarter of the population are about to keel over at any moment!

Comments

I don't think there is legislation that requires products that contain or may be contaminated with nuts to be labelled thus but most manufacturers do it to avoid being sued by people who have nut allergies and who suffer having eaten one of their products.

Asthma is actually related to food allergies - the body has an allergic reaction to particules in the air and the tubes in the lungs become inflamed as a result. Cases of asthma are also on the rise.

Posted by Neil T. at June 1, 2005 08:03 PM

I'm not sure it's accurate to say asthma is related to food allergies both are allergies, but not necessarily linked.

The reason for an increase in asthma and other respiratory allergies (hayfever) at least seems fairly obvious: declining air quality. The increase in food allergies is a bit more puzzling.

Posted by NRT at June 1, 2005 09:28 PM
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