Stranger danger!

Photographer: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Let Them Eat Peanuts

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Like many people of my generation, I've been amazed by the rise of peanut allergies. After all, we spent our childhoods practically marinating in peanut butter -- so cheap and filling! And none of us died. Modern children seem worryingly prone to collapse into anaphylaxis should you so much as mention that you ate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup last week. The list of places into which you may not carry the offending legume has grown longer than the list of places that take American Express.

Aaron Carroll points to a study showing that one reason we may be seeing so many peanut allergies is ... that we're protecting kids from peanuts. Peanut-sensitive infants who are scrupulously shielded from contact with their nemesis seem to develop worse allergies than kids who are exposed to the infamous PB&J. The authors recommend slow acclimatization by including small amounts of peanut in the diet.

In other words, as Carroll points out, our natural reaction (and our less natural overreaction) to the rise of allergies may be creating more of the very thing we are trying to fight. Instead of scrupulously ensuring that no one with a peanut butter sandwich ever gets near their kid, parents should be ensuring that their kids eat more peanuts, so that their system learns to tolerate the foreign protein.  

It's yet another example of what I talk about in my book: how apparent safety is often more dangerous than well-managed risk. Our instincts to protect ourselves and our children are laudable. But they are also often wrong. It's time for a serious rethink of how we manage this threat -- and many other, formerly normal risks from which we are shielding children, to their detriment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net