Peanuts: Food intolerance or food allergy?

While peanut butter and jelly sandwiches remain a familiar staple for millions of kids, such a lunch could cause life threatening reactions for thousands of others. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that there are more than 400,000 American kids suffering from this common food allergy, a number that has tripled from 1997 to 2008.

Peanut allergies should not be confused with food intolerance. A peanut allergy actually involves the immune system while food intolerance does not. Although peanut and tree nut allergies are more prevalent in infants, they can appear in adults. Only about 20 percent of people eventually outgrow their peanut allergies, whereas approximately 20 percent of peanut allergy sufferers see their allergies worsen over time.

Peanuts, while thought to be a nut, are actually a legume. Peanuts belong to the same family as chickpeas, lentils and peas, however, their protein structure is similar to the protein found in tree nuts such as Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, macadamias, walnuts, almonds and pecans.

People allergic to peanuts may or may not also be allergic to tree nuts. Similarly, people allergic to peanuts may or may not be allergic to legumes, soy, beans and peas. An allergy test by a professional healthcare provider is the only true way to determine an individual’s food allergies.

Causes of allergies

The allergy is caused when the body’s immune system overreacts to the proteins in peanuts by producing antibodies. These immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies are designed to fight invading proteins. The body mistakes harmless peanut proteins, and in some people the protein found in various tree nuts, beans and legumes, as harmful invaders and responds by going into high gear to protect the body from the invader. The IgE antibodies then trigger the release of additional chemicals, one being histamine. It is histamine that wreaks havoc and causes a variety of allergic symptoms that can include swelling, breathing problems, hives, stomach aches and vomiting.

Allergy or food intolerance

Some people may confuse a food intolerance with an allergy. To understand the difference, someone with a food intolerance can actually eat small amounts of the food(s) and suffer only mild discomforts such as a heartburn or indigestion. People with a food allergy cannot tolerate any amounts of a specific food without experiencing a severe reaction.

People with peanut allergies can react even from breathing or touching peanuts. While direct contact is the most common cause, inhalation of peanut products as well as cross-contact, where foods are exposed to peanuts during processing, can all cause allergic reactions. There is no exact science as to why some people are allergic to peanuts and others are not.

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