What's causing all these peanut allergies?

Jif peanut butter
CC BY 2.0 brianc

It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized how serious peanut allergies have become. Fortunately my own children don’t have allergies, but many of their friends do, and there are nut-free policies everywhere we go. I brush their teeth carefully and wash their hands to remove all traces of peanut butter after breakfast. I don’t mind, since I can’t imagine how stressful and scary it would be to have a child with an allergy. But as someone who practically survived on peanut butter while growing up, I can’t help but ask why all these allergies have suddenly appeared. What’s causing them?

No one knows for sure, but in an article called “The Hidden Truth about Peanuts: From Food Allergies to Farm Practices,” Robyn O’Brien asks a provocative question: “Are we allergic to food? or what’s been done to it?” She explores the toxic agricultural practices behind peanut farming. Peanuts, which are actually a legume that grows in the ground, have a soft, absorbent shell. Peanut crops are often rotated with cotton, which receives applications of glyphosate, a herbicide that damages beneficial microorganisms in the soil. This leads to more diseases attacking the peanut crop, which requires more pesticides. The USDA found 8 pesticides in peanut butter, and piperonyl butoxide, a carcinogen, was found 26.9 percent of the time. O’Brien cites a farmer who says, “It is common to see a conventional peanut crop sprayed with some type of pesticide every 8-10 days during the growing season.”

Then there’s the problem of “aflatoxin,” a poison that’s released from a fungus that grows on peanuts. Scientists at Cornell University have found a correlation between liver cancer and peanut consumption, but Dr. Andrew Weil points out that there aren’t any liver cancer outbreaks among American kids, many of whom eat plenty of peanut butter. Aflatoxin levels vary greatly, depending on peanut butter brands. The lowest amounts are found in big brands, such as Jif and Skippy, and the highest levels are in the freshly ground peanut butter from health food stores. Perhaps this is due to the rate of turnover. Regardless, it’s a lose-lose situation: you can have fungus on natural peanut butter or genetically modified additives (sugar, hydrogenated oils, corn syrup) in conventional peanut butter. (Another option is to buy almond or cashew butters, which grow on trees and have less exposure to soil pesticides.)

O’Brien raises a valid question. It makes sense that eating foods bathed in chemicals will have a serious impact on human health, and we’re probably just starting to see the effects since shifting from small, diversified farms to large-scale mono-crops. While it’s probably too late to undo the plethora of peanut allergies (although some research has been done in this area on reintroducing miniscule quantities of peanuts to children), perhaps we can decrease allergies in the next generation by paying closer attention to how peanuts are produced and by supporting smaller, organic growers that cultivate peanuts as the easy, problem-free crop that they’re supposed to be. Better yet, I'm going to try growing some peanuts next summer and make my own peanut butter.

Tags: Health | Kids | Pesticides

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