Living with a Peanut Allergy
Today I am not writing about terrorism, because that is all we have been reading in the news lately. Instead, I want to write about another threat out there: the rising number of people with allergies around the world, many of whom have severe reactions that could lead to death. Unfortunately, I am one of those people.
It is not yet fully understood why people become allergic to something – why their immune systems decide that some foods or plants are considered a threat that require an immediate “attack”, which can be as severe as anaphylaxis. It may be a combination of environmental and genetic factors, but it is still not clear why – especially why its numbers are growing, and why the US and Europe seem to be more affected than, say, Asia. Some believe that it can be due to a diet of more processed foods, unhealthy lifestyles or greater pollution levels, but in fact no one knows for sure.
I am not talking of food intolerances here. The fact is that more and more people have severe reactions to every day foods such as tree nuts, peanuts, seafood, wheat, fruit, eggs, or soybeans, to mention just a few. Then, there are common allergies to dust, animal fur or feathers which, although not as severe (reactions may include rashes, itchiness around the nose and eyes, sneezing, etc.), are still a bother.
According to the Food Allergy website, it is estimated that about 15 million Americans have a food allergy. Between 1997 and 2011, the percentage of children with a prevalent food allergy in the U.S. has doubled, and the specific numbers for children with peanut or tree nut allergy appear to have tripled. These are scary facts, because having a severe food allergy really impacts your life.
It is a great risk for children especially, because many times they are not fully aware of the danger (even though some are very careful) involved. Perhaps they would avoid a forbidden food if they knew what it was in advance, but nothing can guarantee that if they were offered something that did not appear to have the allergen, they would stop to ask beforehand whether it was safe for them to eat.
I don’t remember being extremely careful as a child unless I knew something really had peanuts. Besides, allergies to peanuts were not very usual in Portugal, and peanuts themselves are not commonly used in Portuguese cuisine.
I had my first severe reaction when I was still one year old, so I don’t remember eating something carelessly, ever. The allergy has always been there, as far as I can remember. It’s not the worst kind of allergen out there, but it still greatly impacts my life. It’s been a lifetime of reading ingredient boards on packages (or having others reading them for me when they cook meals I’m taking part in), and of asking waiters in restaurants and people who invite me over for dinner whether the food is safe. Many times, it’s not.
I have had waiters bringing me an allergy dossier for their menus, others claiming that unfortunately the kitchen is not nut free and thus there is a risk of cross-contamination, or that even though their kitchen is nut-free, they cannot guarantee that any of the ingredients were not in contact with something with peanuts before. It’s crazy.
I don’t even go to Thai or Chinese restaurants, and although I like Indian food, I’m barred from eating it too often due to peanut oil or other traces in the food. Woks are my worst nightmare. I pretty much avoid all Asian food except for Japanese, and in that case, I mostly limit myself to miso soup and sushi. Sad, isn’t it?
As for travelling, the stress begins in the airplane itself. Will the person sitting next to me be carrying peanuts and eating them during the flight? What about companies that give peanuts as a treat and everyone opens the pack at the same time? Oh, the horror. Just being around peanuts in open spaces makes me nervous, and I can never be fully present when that is the case, because I’m always too worried and aware of other people’s movements. I don’t like being touched by people who are eating peanuts because I hate the smell of it, and I become paranoid that traces of the killer food will be left in me.
I love travelling, but I only go to places I feel comfortable in – I have been to South America and Africa, where peanuts are quite common in typical dishes, but in both cases I speak the languages and thus can make myself understood and avoid a potential reaction and/or a visit to a foreign hospital. However, in Thailand or China, I could never make myself properly understood, and the thought alone scares me. Because allergy levels are much lower in Asia, many restaurants and people in general don’t understand the concept of an allergy, and therefore will not be as careful as you would hope in preparing your food. Besides, there is the language barrier: I can’t speak Thai or Mandarin, and thus, how can I know that they really understood the problem? For now, I’ll stay away from those countries.
I don’t know what it is like to eat something without asking if it may contain peanuts. Labels can be misleading, and sometimes something that you have been eating for years suddenly changes the ingredient list and now may contain traces of peanuts. Since I can have a severe reaction from eating just a trace quantity, I must avoid eating everything that specifically names peanuts as a potential allergen on the package. I’ve seen the annoying “may contain traces of peanuts” in things you would never have considered: fresh fruit bowls, salads, bread, tomato sauce, natural yogurt, pasta, fish sticks, besides the more usual items to avoid, like chocolate (I love the brands that don’t have peanut traces, but there are few), cereals, mixed nuts (and I am not allergic to other nuts, yet I can seldom eat them because they are nearly always processed in the same factory or machine as peanuts), among others.
Finally, even when you succeed in avoiding all foods with peanuts, you would probably never ask your partner if he has eaten something with peanuts before kissing you. It is something you have to tell them right at the beginning, otherwise you could literally die from kissing someone. It’s bad because you are limiting their food choices as much as yours, even though it is your life at stake. The same has happened in my parents’ house all these years, where peanuts and foods containing peanuts are forbidden.
I never have the same dream twice, but I can say that I have had several versions of the same nightmare: somehow, I eat peanuts and have an anaphylactic shock, and wake up unable to breathe. It’s terrifying.
Like me, there are millions of people out there suffering from the same thing, or worse. At least I’m only allergic to peanuts. The problem is that there is no cure for any of this. The only solution is avoiding the allergen at all costs. There are a few experimental treatments and therapies of de-sensibilization to the allergen, but nothing that cures the allergy altogether. Hopefully, there will be one in the future. Fingers crossed.