04/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Nut Anxiety: Fueling the Nut-Roasting Flames

I recently found myself wedged in a subway car between three nut-eaters. Three men of varying socioeconomic status and ethnic backgrounds (everyone loves nuts) were furiously munching on their snacks of choice: a lukewarm waxed paper bag of caramelized nuts from one of NYC's ubiquitous Nuts 4 Nuts vending carts, and two store-bought bags of mixed nuts, heavy on the peanuts.

This got me thinking about the whole nut craze. People with nut allergies everywhere are freaking out. People are dying of salmonella-contaminated food and peanut products. Parents of nut-allergic children are dog-tagging their kids ("my name is Little Jimmy and I'm allergic to Xnuts), frantically checking product ingredients, and searching for that short yet vital disclaimer: "May contain nuts or nut products." I have even seen this printed on products whose primary ingredient is nuts, which is pretty ridiculous (nuts, if you will).

Awareness of nut allergies has increased in the recent past, particularly after the unfortunate "kiss of death" incident in Canada, where a 15-year-old died hours after making out with her boyfriend who had eaten toast with peanut butter earlier in the day. (Many are unaware that she had also been at a party with smokers that night, smoked a joint, and had physical "activity" with her boyfriend. And that she was severely asthmatic. A coroner reevaluated the cause of death, later declaring it the result of a sudden asthma attack.) As a safeguard, some schools have gone so far as to designate nut-free cafeterias and prohibit students from trading lunch items.

While there is valid concern for the safety of people with food allergies and the consequences of exposure, there is also the observation that the risks of food-related allergies have been over exaggerated. An article in Harper's Magazine entitled "Everyone"s Gone Nuts" raises some of the arguments. On WNYC's the Leonard Lopate Show, the author Meredith Broussard says that the most recent studies indicate only 12 deaths from food-related allergies in the year prior to the interview (statistics about food-related allergy deaths seem to vary), noting that a person is four times as likely to die by being struck by lightning. She also raises the point that children with food allergies are often anxious and feel fear "of dying" when they enter a supermarket.

People are fueled by fear ("attack of the peanuts!"), and anxiety is the American way. It is America's number one mental health problem. Mix this with scary reports of food, the media's expertise in freaking us out (so as to ensure that we stay tuned), and here we are. It's the modern age. Some people simply have too much time, and others are watching TV, listening to the news, and browsing web pages simultaneously. Our instant access to information fuels the nut-roasting flames. There's a certain amount of information that people seem to be able to handle and use constructively, and the rest of it can easily overwhelm.

Back to the subway car. Though I have no allergies to nuts, my nostrils find themselves assaulted by the smell. I had read about it, but never had been fully convinced of the existence of "nut dust"--airborne particles of nuts. If this didn't turn me into a believer, nothing would. My nostrils start to feel itchy, but it could be in my head. Am I more prone to develop a nut allergy from this exposure? Or is it helpful for my immune system to be around this nut dust? Were there a nut-free subway car option, I would be spared this whole experience. Could it be possible that I am over-thinking this? Does anyone have any Ativan?

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