Susan Fradin has nightmares about Cheerios. Specifically, the Honey Nut variety. Her son Noah is allergic to peanuts and almonds, and her nighttime torment began during his first trip to sleepaway camp, when he was 9. Fradin, a former publicist in Los Angeles, worried that her son would eat cereal he shouldn't and go into anaphylactic shock. "I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, What if he eats Honey Nut Cheerios thinking they are regular Cheerios?" she says.
Yes, Fradin is one of those incredibly anxious parents who would prefer that her son never so much as lay eyes on a Mr. Peanut logo ever again. Noah's allergist at UCLA, Dr. Gary Rachelefsky, who has treated him since babyhood, describes her as initially "one of the most fearful mothers I ever came into contact with." She's calmer these days, but her concerns are not unfounded. A few months before Noah went off to camp, she woke up one night to find him covered in hives, coughing and gasping, and she had to jam a syringe full of epinephrine into his thigh to help him breathe. "It was horrendous," says Fradin. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)
Noah is now 16 and a surprisingly well-adjusted member of what might be called the Allergy Generation. In addition to peanuts, he is allergic to lentils, beans, peas, tree nuts, sesame and shellfish. The Fradins and the 3 million other families in the U.S. with food-allergic children have to navigate not only the complexities of the grocery aisle but also the growing skepticism among those who wonder if the sudden rise in food allergies is due more to hysteria than to histamines. A waiter, for example, may not grasp the seriousness behind Noah's endless questions about the menu. "I just need to spend a little more time ordering and talk about how I could die," he says.
As more and more schools set up peanut-free zones and as food manufacturers add warning labels that their products might contain particles of peanuts, soy or other allergens, the abundance of caution is starting to trigger a backlash. Given all the attention paid in recent years to food allergies, the number of people in the U.S. who die from them 15 to 20 a year is relatively small. More people die each year from bee stings. "But we don't remove flowers from schools or playgrounds," Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, commented recently in the British Medical Journal. When asked about his editorial, which he wrote after his son's school bus had to be evacuated because someone spotted a peanut on board, he said, "We should be having a sober-minded, public-health debate, and instead the overresponse to food allergies is preposterous."
Christakis notes that peanut and other food allergies are a real problem; it's the community reaction to them that is getting out of hand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of U.S. children under 18 with a reported food allergy jumped 18% from 1997 to 2007, and the number of children hospitalized for food allergies has nearly quadrupled in recent years. So forget pet dander and pollen. "In this day and age, allergy in pediatrics is all about food, food, food," says Dr. Allen Lapey, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Each year, 30,000 people in the U.S. are rushed to the emergency room suffering from an allergic reaction to food. And while these allergies are rising among all major racial and ethnic groups, they are climbing fastest among Hispanic children, according to new data from the CDC.