Here’s how you know kids’ allergies are out of control: when parents flip out at General Mills for debuting peanut butter flavored Cheerios. The Washington Post reports that parents across the country are terrified that the new cereal variety will cross-contaminate the other non-peanut flavors, and put their kids with peanut allergies at extreme risk. Their beef: that the new Cheerios flavor looks just like the other kinds, so kids with the potentially life-threatening allergies (and their parents, too) won’t be able to tell the difference once it’s out of the box. Parents are threatening a boycott of all Cheerios varieties if the issues isn’t remedied.
A General Mills spokesperson issued a statement reassuring parents that there would be no cross contamination and that the boxes of the new cereal would be clearly marked with an allergen listing. But parents say that’s not enough: what happens when two-year-old Suzie, who’s not allergic to peanuts, is walking around with a plastic baggie full of the peanut-flavored cereal, and Johnny, who’s extremely allergic, reaches in and helps himself to one?
It’s far from an absurd scenario. The Post references an incident just last week in which a Virginia first-grader died after eating a peanut offered to her by a friend on the playground. My own nephew, Luke, was rushed to the hospital last fall after his cousin gave him a Reese’s Pieces—one little piece.
Pediatric allergist Laura Gober, who sees patients at Children’s Hospital’s Specialty Care Center in Springfield, says peanut allergies are no joke. “There has been a definite rise in food allergies, and peanuts along with that,” she says. “I’ve seen it in my own practice. We have a large cohort with peanut allergies.” According to a study last year in Pediatrics, about eight percent of kids have some kind of food allergy, and of those, 30 percent have multiple food allergies.
Problem is, doctors can’t seem to pinpoint exactly why they’re seeing more cases, although they have their guesses: our too-healthy immune systems (thanks, vaccines!) have turned on peanuts, parents are introducing kids to peanuts too late in life, or perhaps it has to do with how peanuts themselves are processed. Because of the potentially life-threatening consequences of peanut exposure in kids and adults with severe allergies, Gober says scientists and doctors are racing to study the issue more deeply, both from preventative and treatment angles.
As for parents and their beef with General Mills specifically, Gober admits it’s not a completely unfounded concern, though she’s heartened by the fact that General Mills swears up and down that their products are safe from cross contamination. Parents’ safest bet? Teaching their kids not to eat out of other kids’ lunch boxes to begin with.
“That’s when kids get into trouble, when they share their lunches,” says Gober. “We usually tell parents it’s best to teach their kids to not share food unless they know it’s peanut free. And just to be safe, we tell them to avoid all nuts outside of the home altogether.”