An allergy to peanuts is probably the most serious known type of food allergy as it is often fatal. Even minute quantities of peanuts can trigger an allergic reaction.
Recent research has shown that peanut allergies are on the increase. Researchers attribute this to several factors, including the general increase in allergic reactions in the population (due to the increase in processed foods), the tendency of food manufacturers to use peanuts in a wider range of products, and the globalisation of our food supply. Nowadays, peanuts are also used in many non-food products such as soaps, skin creams, tablets and aromatherapy oils.
Some researchers believe this is because these children were sensitised by tiny quantities of peanut in non-food products or while being breastfed. Although children get exposed to peanuts, it is still not necessary for breastfeeding moms to avoid eating peanuts as this has not been found to be effective in preventing the development of an allergy to peanut.
There are also more "hidden" forms of peanuts. Peanut-free foods may be contaminated with minute traces of peanut if the foods have been manufactured in a factory that also processes peanut-containing foods. This is why most food manufacturers display a blanket warning on their products stating: "may contain traces of peanuts". Fortunately the new South African Labelling Regulations will make it mandatory for manufacturers to analyse their products and to indicate clearly whether a specific food contains peanut or not.
Despite their name, peanuts are not actually nuts, but belong to the legume family. That is why approximately 15% of children with peanut allergies may also react to other legumes, particularly lentils.
Unfortunately 25-35% of people who are allergic to peanuts may also develop allergic reactions to tree nuts, despite the fact that they are not botanically related.
Only about 22% of children will outgrow their peanut allergy. Experts advise parents to continue avoiding peanuts, even if tests show that the child is no longer allergic, as reactions can still occur. (Reviewed by registered dietician Karen Horsburgh, January 2010)