If you’re allergic to peanuts, just smelling them won’t cause an allergic reaction. But there’s a catch: If the air you’re smelling has peanut dust in it, it might.
Fortunately, contrary to popular belief, small peanut particles like these are not usually airborne. However, in some cases, they can turn into an odor.
This article looks at how you react when you have a peanut allergy, research on allergies and odors shows when and why peanut dust and particles can be a problem, and how cooking peanuts can affect your potential to react.
What causes food allergies?
Peanut scent is protein free
Being allergic to peanuts means that your immune system reacts to specific proteins in peanuts. These proteins are found in the peanuts themselves as well as in foods made with whole peanuts.
Purified peanut oil has no protein, which is why most people with peanut allergies can consume it without a reaction.
They are also not present in the airborne compounds that produce the peanut odor. Odors are contained in smaller organic compounds that are not derived from peanut protein, so inhalation or even ingestion of them will not trigger an allergic reaction.
What to do if you have a food allergy
The researchers looked at exposure to peanut odor and allergic reactions.
In an oft-cited study, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine exposed 30 children with peanut allergies to real peanut butter and bait peanut butter (soy butter) within 1 foot for 10 minutes. Participants do not know which is which.
Although subjects could smell peanut butter (and soy butter), none of them responded to the scent.
Many of these children had a history of exposure or inhalation reactions to peanuts. The researchers concluded that “incidental exposure to peanut butter” (in other words, touching or smelling peanut butter) did not cause problems in 90 percent of children who were highly sensitive to peanuts.
The remaining 10% are likely to respond to casual exposure, so you should still be careful.
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Peanut Dust and Granules
The reactions that seem to involve the smell of peanuts in the air are actually related to what you actually inhale. Peanut dust and small peanut particles in the air can cause allergic reactions.
If all you smell is peanut butter, there’s unlikely to be any dust or small pieces of peanuts floating in the air. The consistency of the peanut butter helps with this.
One exception is if you smell peanut butter near a nut butter grinder, which you might find at some health food stores. These machines pose a real risk and you should stay away.
If people are shelling and eating peanuts near you, they will spread peanut dust in the air. This means that not only can you smell the peanuts, but you can actually inhale dust and particles.
Dust inhalation is a problem in stadiums that serve peanuts, as well as in some stores and restaurants that serve peanuts in the shell for customers to eat.
cooking release oil
Also, when food is cooked, they often release oils into the air that can contain allergenic proteins and cause reactions.
Cooked peanuts or certain types of Asian foods, including peanuts and peanut butter, may pose this risk.
Finally, trace amounts of peanut products can get on your hands and be ingested when you touch your mouth, causing a reaction—even without peanut dust in the air.
So if you smell peanuts, wash your hands carefully before eating or bringing your hands to your mouth.
food allergy?Be careful with cooking oil
Peanut allergies are caused by the protein in peanuts. Protein is not present in the smell, so the smell of peanuts alone will not cause a reaction.
However, if someone is grinding, shelling, or cooking peanuts near you, they may release peanut dust, particles, or oils into the air. Those do contain problem proteins and can trigger a reaction.
While the smell of peanuts won’t cause a reaction, it can warn you that there may be actual peanut dust or oil in the air.
So if you have a severe peanut allergy, react to the smell as if it could be dangerous and take precautions. Better to be safe than sorry.
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