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Food Allergies and Food Bans: Are they too much?

By Robin Aronson |

A panel of experts at The National Institute of Allergies and Infection Disease has released new guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of food allergies.  What do the experts say? Banning foods like peanuts and peanut butter is an overreaction to a medical condition that too often goes self-diagnosed.

The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease puts the rate of allergies in kids at 6 to 8 percent. It’s about 4 percent in adults.  But those are the numbers of people diagnosed with food allergies, which is probably not the same as the number of people who thin they, or their kids, have food allergies.In an NPR story on the new food allergy guidelines, Sami Bahna, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, says, “Many patients claim food allergy without having them.”  Why? People can have physical reactions to foods that demonstrate a food intolerance — such as lactose intolerance — but that’s not the same as a food allergy.

To diagnose an allergy, a patient would have a pin-prick or blood test. This tells you if the body is developing an anti-body to a food, not whether a person would have a physical reaction to that antibody.  To test for a physical reaction, you would have to have a food challenge test in which the patient would have to eat some of the food in question in a doctor’s office and then you see what happens.

Sounds like fun, right?  No wonder people don’t have that test. But not having it means a lot of people over estimate their risk, hence the food bans.

How do we know people think they’re more allergic than they are? The NPR story gives an example:

“A couple of years ago, researchers at National Jewish Health in Denver conducted “food challenge” tests on 125 children with allergies and eczema and found that more than 50 percent of the kids could actually tolerate foods they were told to avoid….”

So how much is too much when it comes to banning foods in schools and classrooms?

A while back on Tablet, I read an essay by Marjorie Ingall on how to manage food allergies. She writes:

“Are there children who are so desperately allergic they can’t be in a room with nuts? Absolutely. Are they common? Doubtful. I say this as someone who is allergic enough to have stopped breathing, lost consciousness, and required intubation. Once, after I made out with my college boyfriend after he’d eaten a walnut brownie in the cafeteria, my lips swelled up so much I looked like Amanda Lepore. Yet I tested only at level 4 (on a scale of 0 to 6) on the blood test that determines just how allergic you are. My doctor said that in over 30 years of practice, he’s never seen a 6. Here’s my proposition: If you can produce test results saying your kid is a 4, you get a nut-free table in the classroom. If your kid is a 5, you get a nut-free school. And if your kid is a 6, you get whatever you want, because that blows. (As an aside: All parents of allergic kids should teach them to be judicious about swapping spit and eating while drunk—it sounds like a joke, but adolescence was when I had to learn new lessons about living with a serious allergy.)”

This seems like an entirely reasonable approach to me.  You don’t even need a food challenge test to follow it.

What do you think?  Should peanut butter and jelly just be banned from schools no matter what?  Should food bans be case by case?

photo credit: thenutfactory.com

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Robin Aronson

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0 thoughts on “Food Allergies and Food Bans: Are they too much?

  1. Sara says:

    But that would be way to logical.

  2. Jeannie says:

    As a friend of mine (with multiple problematic allergies) said … At some point you / your kid must learn about their allergy — asking questions as to what’s in food they eat. If you provide them with a completely nut-free environment … How do they do that? I’m fine with it in preschool and daycare and even elementary school, when little kids dont know any better and often grab each other’s food. But at high school kids should probably be able to figure out what to put in their mouths.

  3. Leanne says:

    From my conversations with parents of severely allergic children and teachers with severe allergies, it’s less about swapping food and far more about having residue on the hands. Hands with peanut butter can leave a mess on a table and a severely allergic child touches that spot 4 hrs later and has an episode that can be as little as a few hives to as large as cardiac arrest. So, the issue can get really complicated.

  4. Heather says:

    Food bans do not result from people “misdiagnosing” their children as allergic. They come from a concern with preventing a life threatening reaction in those medical diagnosed with a severe food allergy– people with Epi Pens, which require a doctor’s prescription, and thus, a formal diagnosis of a life threatening allergy. Severe food allergy is a medical condition, not an overblown worry.

  5. Leanne says:

    @Heather Agreed. Around here it is the law that schools must restrict (the degree to which they are restricting is up to the individual principal) nuts. Unfortunately, “nut” is a catch-all term that isn’t clearly defined. Peanuts are legumes, so does that mean all legumes are also out? Various seeds? It’s murky and definitely requires far more clarification for parents with non-allergic children.

  6. IrishCream says:

    The argument isn’t that food allergies aren’t a dangerous medical condition. It’s that some people think that they or their children have this condition when they in fact do not, and that it is not a good idea to develop public health policies based on self-diagnoses.

    To which I say “Amen.”

  7. Almitra Gasper says:

    This is a great topic. It brings up the question of how our children will be treated in regards to dietary needs. It forces us to look at what we think is “normal” eating and then how we treat those that “eat funny”. Food allergies and sensitivity are real and the most reliable diagnosis in my opinion is that of the primary caretaker. Just because the doctor says the reaction is a 4 doesn’t mean that it couldn’t change in either direction. Moms take precautions based on their knowledge of their family history and daily experience with their child.
    The conversation is a good one. If more children are displaying an intolerance to animal milk, then food preparation must be altered. Same is true for soy, nuts, meat, and other meat by-products. There is a way to prepare and serve food that avoids the most popular allergenic foods. It would be a great way to demonstrate being sensitive to everyone’s needs.

  8. Angela says:

    My little brother has repeatedly tested as off the charts high (at a 6) for egg and poultry allergies (and numerous visits to the ER have confirmed the test). To keep him completely safe in school, they would have to ban turkey and chicken lunch meat, mayo, many types of bread, most cookies, brownies and other baked goods (which all contain egg), etc. He also has a host of other, slightly less sever, allergies that rate between a 3 and 5 (including peanuts). It would be extremely impractical for the school to be made completely safe for him and so my family has never requested that such measures be implemented – just reasonable precautions. The teachers and administrators at his school have been trained to use an epi-pen and one is always available and he learned at a young age to be extremely careful, never trade food and to let an adult know if his throat starts to tingle. However, he has still taken more ambulance rides then any kid should have to.

    I don’t think that banning foods from schools is a workable solution given the wide range of potential allergens and the cost that this forces other children to bear. Broad and practical solutions such as allergy free tables or rooms, mandatory hand washing, children educated to the dangers of their allergies and adults who have been trained to notice and respond quickly to a child’s distress will provide allergy sufferers with reasonable protection while they learn to take responsibility for what might be a lifelong condition.

  9. Kate says:

    The only thing more annoying than people who falsely claim to have allergies are people who maintain an air of skepticism when informed of someone’s allergies. Yes, not everyone who thinks they have allergies actually has them. But that is at least partially the fault of the medical community, who know little more today than they did over 30 years ago when my allergies were first diagnosed. I suffered for years from migraines and eczema due to a “chocolate allergy” that was actually a milk allergy. Bottom line: it is not the business of basic strangers to judge someone who is ill, whether or not that person has been correctly or incorrectly diagnosed by a doctor.

  10. April says:

    I’m the mother of a young child who has suffered many life threatening reactions. It is so wrong for people to ignorantly judge others’ allergies… especially those of CHILDREN. It is heartless for them to think that if their child doesn’t have a condition, then they shouldn’t have to worry about other peoples’ children. We’re all in this world together. I think a lot of the ignorance comes from the fact that multiple food allergies has only very recently come about in such great numbers of kids. My generation didn’t have this problem. My son’s generation does have this problem. Who knows what has causes it… pollution, chemical foods, too clean an environment? But the fact is, the problem is here, is NOT imagined, threatens the LIVES of many kids, and the safety of these children need to be held in high regard. How dare other parents complain about keeping children safe.

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