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Being allergic to Valentine's Day, and everything else

By Kayvon Ghoreshi
On February 13, 2014

In addition to the large amounts of roses, couples and single people lamenting said couples -Valentine's Day is also a major holidays for the candy industry. This year - according to the National Confectioners Association in Washington - an estimated $1.057 billion will have been spent on candy, up 1.9 percent from last year and the highest spending total in at least the last five years. Almost all the chocolate and candy purchased likely came in some form of packaging reading "May contain peanuts."
As someone who has lived his entire life with a severe peanut allergy, that is a phrase I have grown accustom to reading and lamenting. Most major candy and chocolate manufacturers nowadays, with the exception of a few companies like Hershey, sport the label - or some variation of it - such as "may contain traces of peanuts or tree nuts" or "processed in a facility that processes peanuts or tree nuts." The FDA requires that foods that actually do contain peanuts and tree nuts need to be labeled as such, which is perfectly informative to allergic consumers. However, the addition of "may" turns it into a more ambiguous affair. The FDA doesn't require labeling of potential contamination, but many companies still print it, either to be informative or to gain legal protection for the off chance someone goes into anaphylactic shock from eating their product. It isn't just sweets either, as the popularity of peanut oil has led to an array of other foods potentially containing peanuts.
The broader issue is ensuring those affected with allergies, particularly children, are in a safe environment. Some schools have banned peanuts from the school lunch room. Restaurants have taken more care to indicate allergen information on their menus. Some airlines have even stopped serving the classic bags of peanuts for fear of an anaphylactic episode at 30,000 feet above sea level. And while this is all welcome, according to the Centers for Disease Control, still more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children are due to allergic reactions to food. And this problem will only continue to become more prevalent, considering the number of children who deal with peanut allergies alone has more than tripled since 1997, according to a study from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And food allergies in general have increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 according to a 2013 CDC study.
Much of what I have said above deals with preventive care, and there needs to be more of it in order to keep the number of reactions to a minimum. However, in the event of an allergic reaction people seem to be grossly misinformed about what to do. Take the EpiPen as an example: It has become ubiquitous with peanut allergies, yet many people do not understand how to use it or what it does. I - and pretty much everyone else allergic to peanuts - know how to use it, but I won't be the one to use it in a state of anaphylactic shock. Instead, it will have to be a friend or a complete stranger. As such, it is crucial that not only individuals with allergies and their families know what to do, but also school faculty, restaurant employees and others that may need to act.
I have spent most of my life being allergic to peanuts, and while my other allergies have whittled away over the years, the severity of my allergy to peanuts has only increased. I, and millions of others, have grown up never knowing what the classic combination of peanut butter and jelly tastes like - and, as of right now, we still don't know why that is. Biologically speaking, peanut allergies and really all food allergies are the result of a person's immune system recognizing certain proteins as a threat to the body, overreacting and producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E -which release histamines, causing many of the symptoms of an allergic reaction. However, we still do not know why people have food allergies in the first place. Some research has shown it is tied to genetics. Other research has shown it can be tied to when a child is exposed to certain foods, possibly even during pregnancy. It could be a multitude of factors. In short, there really is no consensus on how allergies develop. However, current research looks promising and the effort and funding behind it needs to continue; because, while peanut-free efforts are necessary in the short term, the peanut allergy-free efforts are what the future needs.

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