Why Are Peanuts Such a Common Allergen?

Peanuts are one of the most common, most dangerous food allergens. Additionally, the condition often last a lifetime, as only 20% of children outgrow their peanut allergy.

Generally, people who suffer from food allergies have extra sensitive immune systems that respond to harmless substances called allergens. For example, when a person with a peanut allergy consumes a peanut, the body reacts by producing antibodies to the specific allergen. The body attacks the allergen, causing an immune reaction. The effects range from itching skin and watering eyes to serious, fatal reactions.

Scientists have discovered that certain peanut proteins are responsible for these reactions: Ara h 1, Ara h 2, Ara h 3, Ara h 8, and Ara h 9. These proteins are specific to peanuts, and are uncommon in other foods. Their structure stimulates a strong immune response. Additionally, when peanuts are roasted, the protein changes shape, which worsens the reaction. However, boiling peanuts decreases the risk of allergies, as the protein shape remains constant, and some protein escapes from the peanuts into the water.

Today, peanut allergy is on the rise. In 1997, a survey reported that 0.4% of children suffered from peanut allergies. In 2008, this number reached 1.4% and is now nearing 2%. Scientists are unsure exactly what caused the increase in peanut allergies, but, with the help of experiments and research, have offered various theories.

Originally, scientists believed that early and heavy exposure to peanut products might cause children’s immune systems to misidentify them as dangerous. However, some studies show that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy increases the risk of a child developing a peanut allergy.

This led to the belief that early allergen exposure increases the likelihood of tolerance and actually decreases the risk of childhood food allergy. A recent study monitored the effects of peanuts on children from birth to age 5. One group was exposed to peanuts, while the other was not. At the end of the experiment, 14% of those who had no peanut exposure were allergic compared to only 2% of those who had early exposure — an 86 percent reduction in risk.

But what about children who already have peanut allergies? Research supports oral immunotherapy as a possible cure. This process uses peanut protein to increase tolerance to peanuts. A 2009 study examined peanut allergic children as they consumed small daily doses of peanut flour, which contains a high concentration of peanut protein.  After several weeks, all of the allergic children were ‘desensitized’ to the peanut allergen, including one that was highly allergic.

Last but not least, scientists propose the hygiene hypothesis. This theory suggests that extremely clean, westernized environments have caused the immune systems of children to weaken significantly. In other words, children have become more sensitive to harmless substances due to a lack of exposure to infections, parasites, and microorganisms.

Currently, active research continues, as scientists are determined to find the cause and cure for the peanut allergy and its alarming outbreak.

Today, I decided to bake with my all-time favorite food- peanut butter! This cookie recipe showcases two classic combinations- peanut butter and jelly and peanut butter and chocolate.

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Crumbly peanut butter cookies topped with a touch of sweetness.

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I’m having a hard time deciding which flavor combination I like the best.

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I guess I’ll just have to keep eating them until I come to a conclusion.

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Peanut Butter Thumbprint Cookies

1/2 cup butter

3/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup peanut butter

1 egg

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

2 cups flour

1/3 cup jelly

1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Combine the butter, sugar, and peanut butter.   Mix in the rest of the ingredients, slowly adding the flour last.  Form into balls and place on a greased baking sheet.  Press the center with your thumb to create a well.

Fill half of the cookies with jelly and bake for 16 to 18 minutes.  Bake the other half with the wells empty.  Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 20 second intervals.  Spoon into the empty cookies.  Let cool and serve.

Makes 30 cookies.

Thanks to these sites for the information on peanuts.

New York Times

Pop Sci

Live Science

Peanut Institute

Common Health

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