When I first arrived in Beijing, the word hua sheng 花生, or peanut, became the most important word in my vocabulary. I am severely allergic to peanuts, and China is a particularly dangerous place for someone who suffers from a peanut allergy. Not only are peanuts prevalent in most dishes, but waiters just don’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation.
When I order food I say, “I don’t eat peanuts,” or “I am allergic to peanuts,” but invariably, the dish will still have peanuts lurking inside, although considerably fewer peanuts than usual. I’ve taken to saying in Chinese, “If I eat peanuts, I will die,” and this request, although extreme, seems to get the point across.
It makes sense that Chinese people are often baffled by my peanut allergy. It’s estimated that three million people in the United States are allergic to peanuts, yet China has virtually no peanut allergy.
The cause of the rising occurrence of peanut allergies in Western countries, particularly the United States, Canada and Great Britain, is still highly disputed. One potential explanation is the “hygiene hypothesis” which reasons that the obsession with ultra-cleanliness in some Western countries has changed the behavior of IgE. IgE’s central role is to fight infection, but when it’s not exposed to enough germs early in life, it becomes restless and prone to attack new things. During a peanut allergic reaction, the body mistakenly identifies protein in the peanut as a dangerous invader and activates a portion of the immune system. This may explain why allergies in underdeveloped nations are considerably lower—their immune systems are constantly being exercised. If you are raising your children in China, perhaps the less-than-immaculate environment here may actually be a good thing.
I always carry an epipen (epinephrine, also known as adrenaline) with me, but my doctor in Beijing suggested a cheaper alternative. Since epipens can only be used once and are quite expensive, my doctor gave me ten vials of epinephrine and syringes. Now, I have peanut allergy insurance at my office, at home, and in my bag at all times.
Having more options in the case of an emergency is always a good idea. My older brother, Adam, is also seriously allergic to peanuts. Before, if we only had one epipen among us and were eating questionable food, one of us would hold back and observe the other one eating the food—if the guinea pig remained unscathed, the other one felt safe to dig in, too. It wasn’t the most sophisticated method.
Consumption quantity of peanuts in China and the United States is comparable, but the differences in processing peanuts may be another explanation for China’s low peanut allergy. In the U.S., they dry-roast peanuts, and in China, they fry or boil them. Dry-roasting is thought to make peanuts more allergenic.
There aren’t many clear answers on how to prevent allergies of any kind. Many doctors claim prolonged breast-feeding greatly reduces allergies but others think food allergy prevention is ineffective. American parents are encouraged to wait until children are 3 years old before exposing them to peanuts, but in Israel, children are introduced to peanuts at a younger age and have a lower rate of peanut allergy.
Meanwhile, there is still a search for a safer peanut. After getting a doctor’s advice, parents with children who have food allergies can consult other food allergy websites. Sometimes the safest bet is preparing food at home and carefully reading all labels on food packaging.