Or is it hypo-whelmed?
Recently, there has been a flurry of articles talking about the research and development of a genetically modified peanut that does not contain the proteins responsible for trigger peanut reactions. I'm not all that excited about this development, and I'd like to try to explain why.
First of all, I recognize that this is well-intended and will possibly give Ryan more food options. I'm always glad when people try to do nice things for us living with food allergies, and so I really don't wish to sound ungrateful (well, I might sound ungrateful, but it's not my intent, honest). I recognize that having more food options can be a value to those living with food restrictions. And I can see a possible value in this development IF it is used as part of some kind of immunotherapy for people with peanut allergy. (Though if they're making them non-allergenic I don't quite see how, but I might be wrong about that.)
Also, it's strange that the hypoallergenic peanut is making news lately, unless there's been a new breakthrough. But I first became aware of this research years ago. But that's a very minor thing.
Anyway, on to my objections to this new kind of peanut.
I think it's insanely irresponsible that the media (I HOPE none of the scientists are thinking this) thinks that a hypoallergenic peanut will "free millions from fear" (as the second link above suggests). That is really absolutely untrue and sensationalistic. As long as they keep making the regular peanuts with the proteins that people like Ryan react to, we will not ever be free of the worry and stress that comes with the territory of Life with Food Allergies.
Sure, he might have more options, but the things we (and he) would need to do to keep him safe would not change. We'd still have to research companies and restaurants and make phone calls and talk to managers. We'd have companies whose labeling policies we'd trust and companies we'd avoid no matter what (Duncan Hines, I'm looking at you!). Note: I make my own independent decisions to trust labeling practices, and my trust is in NO WAY based on the government's food labeling laws. That wouldn't change if companies started using hypoallergenic peanuts in their products. I'd still research them and make up my own mind about whether we can trust them.
I worry that a hypoallergenic peanut would make well-meaning people even more confused about Life with Food Allergies. It took FOREVER to get some people to understand that We. Don't. Take. Chances. EVER. I can imagine that it would be easy for someone not in our shoes to get confused by the List of Things with Non-Safe Peanuts and the List of Things with Safe Peanuts. I can imagine this because I've lived it already--the confusion between the List of Things that are Peanut-Safe and the List of Things that are Not already exists. Not fun.
I wonder about how and where they'll grow these new peanuts. If they get cross-pollinated by bees with the regular kind of peanuts, will they still be safe? How will they control for this possibility? They can't keep genetically-modified corn out of the regular corn, right? I'm not a scientist, but I have to wonder if the same thing would happen with these peanuts. And I haven't ever seen this issue discussed in the many articles I've read about this topic. I'm really curious--would the hybrid peanuts be safe or not? And again--who with a peanut allergy would be willing to take that chance?
I honestly wonder if Ryan would even want to try a hypoallergenic peanut. He has expressed curiosity about peanuts, but I honestly don't even know if he'd eat it. I have a few food allergy friends who have expressed the same thought--that they (or their food-allergic kids) wouldn't even go there anyway. We've all learned to live without them. I wonder if those who are dealing with lots and lots of food allergies would be more likely to try them, since their diets are much more restricted than Ryan, who only has the one allergy.
But here's the real reason I'm underwhelmed by this exciting news about a peanut without allergens: it's an answer to the wrong problem.
Let me try to explain.
Ryan's problem could be stated this way: "Ryan can't eat peanuts because he's allergic to them."
Or it could be stated in this way: "Ryan is allergic to peanuts and can't eat them."
It's subtle, maybe, so I'll try again. His problem isn't that he can't eat peanuts--it's that he's allergic to them. He is living just fine without eating them! Okay, so they're both problems, but the lesser problem is that he can't eat peanuts. The more ginormous problem is that if he eats enough peanut protein, he could die.
And this is concerning to me, because I have to wonder how researchers got started down this road of researching and developing a hypoallergenic peanut in the first place. It's as if some (well-meaning, I sure) person thought "Those poor people can't eat peanuts. Let's make them one they CAN eat!"
Instead, I want them to think "Those poor people could die if they accidentally eat even 1/1000th of a peanut. Let's find a way to make that reaction NOT happen!"
It's like looking at a drowning man and thinking "Wow, that guy is in danger from all that water! Let's take some of the water out of the pool!" --instead of just throwing the poor guy a rope and saving his life.
It's not a perfect analogy, but I hope it makes some sense. People living with food allergies are LIVING with food allergies. Yes it's a pain and scary sometimes, and involves research and research and vigilance and Epi-pens and Benadryl and vigilance and education. It's not fun, and I don't wish it on anyone.
But we are managing around the bigger, scarier, more ginormous--and in my opinion--REAL problems: that some foods trigger terrible allergic reactions in some, but not others.That nobody seems to understand or predict the causes. That nobody can predict the severity of any given reaction based on the person's personal history. That there isn't even an agreed-upon definition for anaphylaxis! That children in some states and counties are not allowed to carry their Epi-pens with them at school, and that EMTs in some states are not allowed BY LAW to administer an Epi-pen in a food allergy emergency. That there is NO treatment to prevent reactions. That there is NO cure.
The problem isn't that Ryan can't eat peanuts. It's that he's ALLERGIC to peanuts. So please, researchers, find us an answer to that problem. Do something else with those hypoallergenic peanuts, because I don't want them.
UPDATE: I added a few sentences to the next-to-last paragraph, and re-worded my drowning man analogy.