There was a time when every American kid symbolized three food products-Potato Chips, Cola Drink and Peanut Butter and they had dominated the markets all over the world as consumer crazy commercial products. Both cola drinks and chips faced enormous odds in the market now and then, being castigated as unhealthy and it is tribute to the sagacity, marketing muscle and technological prowess on the part of the manufacturers to weather the storms as when they blew across their turf. Now it is the turn of Peanut Butter which is facing the flak from the very consumers who courted them as one of their favorite snack items, who are raising a big hue and cry about the safety of this material for their children. What a turn around in a brief span of a decade? Currently peanut butter is banned in many schools and peanut free zones are being created in some other schools in that country. Even thorough hand washing is being enforced to prevent allergy molecules from peanut causing problems to others! 25% of parents do believe that their children are peanut allergic though statistically only 4% of school going kids are vulnerable to this syndrome. Probably the scientific correlation between peanut allergy and other allergies like asthma makes parents nervous about use of peanut products in general.
An adverse immune response to a food protein is responsible for allergy. Millions of people are affected by food allergies of various types, USA alone accounting for 12 million cases. About 1 in 15 children suffers from some form of allergy while 1 in 25 adults has the same affliction. Since most of the allergy cases are reported from western countries where hospital facilities are excellent, only 100-200 deaths occur each year. Other important allergic foods include shell fish,tree nuts,fish, eggs, soybean and wheat. The symptoms manifesting as angioedema, appears within a few seconds to one hour in the form of soft tissue swelling in areas near eyes, face, lips,tongue, larynx, trachea causing difficulties in breathing. Itching of mouth, throat, eyes and the skin, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, abdominal pain, nasal congestion, wheezing are other symptoms of allergy.
An allergic reaction to food involves the various components of the immune system. One component is a type of protein, an anti body called immunoglobulin (IgE) which circulates through the blood. Another component is the mast cells, a specialized cell that is found in all tissues in the body. These cells are common in nose, throat, lungs, skin and GI tract which are typical sites of allergic reactions. The allergen stimulates lymphocytes to produce IgE anti body that is specific to the allergen. This IgE attaches itself to the surface of the mast cells in different tissues of the body. When ever the food containing the allergen is eaten, it provokes the mast cells to release of chemicals like histamine and the consequent reaction.
Is the peanut allergy so serious as to warrant its total elimination from the diets in whole of the world? The present label warning system ensures that foods processed in machines commonly used for peanuts is declared on the label and separate cautionary warning is included for foods containing peanut as an ingredient for the benefits of allergic consumers. The health benefits of peanuts for a vast majority of the population far outweigh the relatively few allergy risks for some sensitive people. It is well known that consumption of a handful of peanuts twice a week halves the risk of heart attacks. Being a food product with very low glycemic index, peanut is strongly recommended for people vulnerable to sugar compromised conditions like diabetes. With high proteins in the kernel, peanut is an excellent wholesome food material for both children and adults. Breast feeding of children at least for the first four months is believed to be capable of preventing or delaying onset of peanut allergy. Indians are fortunate in that very few cases of peanut allergy are reported officially though possibility of many others going unreported cannot be ruled out. The nutrition monitoring bureau of the Ministry of Health must include data collection on food allergies also if, as a nation, we have to prevent epidemic forms of allergic manifestations in future. Unless reliable data base is established, no worthwhile national contingency strategy can be formulated for counter acting such incidences as and when they become a serious health challenge in the country.