Some Canadians who have life-threatening food allergies have long prized McDonald's as a "safe space," where they could eat plenty of stuff on the menu without worrying too much. Although common allergens like eggs, dairy and nuts are available, the nuts that come in a sundae (for example) were individually bagged to prevent cross-contamination.
All of that changed on Tuesday, when McDonald's Canada launched a new "SKOR McFlurry," laden with almond bits (SKOR is a popular chocolate bar in Canada, for those who are missing out). The McFlurry, which this reporter tried and found to be pretty tasty, is the first product the restaurant has offered where the nuts aren't individually packaged, according to the company.
As a result, McDonald's Canada can no longer guarantee that anything in its kitchen hasn't been in contact with a peanut (or other nut) before it's served. Allergy sufferers were outraged and angry, spreading their message with the hashtag #NotLovinIt on social media.
The science of allergies is far from settled. And, while McDonald's new policy will only make it harder for food allergy sufferers in the short term, the latest approach to preventing them prescribes more exposure to certain things that plague us, not less, which can add to the confusion.
Peanuts were once a staple of air travel, for example, before being banished. For the past several years, however, they've been creeping back. Airlines now offer specific policies around nuts: Air Canada can offer "buffer zone seating" to those with allergies, but can't guarantee any of its foods are nut-free. Delta, too, doesn't guarantee a peanut-less environment, though it doesn't serve them when a sufferer is onboard.
Meanwhile, medical advice on peanuts has also been swinging back and forth. The latest thinking is that babies should be fed peanut products when they're young—even if they're at risk of allergies—to build immunity. For years, parents were told to effectively avoid giving their kids any peanuts until they were at least 3, to lower the risk, so the new recommendations have understandably caused alarm and confusion among plenty of parents and even some healthcare providers.
We don't fully understand the cause of allergies, or their rise, Susan Waserman, a professor of medicine at McMaster University, told me over the phone. There are theories, including the "hygiene hypothesis"—that in this hyper-clean environment, our immune system becomes hypersensitive to stuff that isn't inherently harmful, like peanuts and pollen.
"The advice we've been giving people for many years [was] to avoid those allergenic foods," she said. Allergies were already on the rise then, but this advice may have "accelerated" it, she said. In fact, a growing number of studies shows that infants exposed to peanuts earlier tend to fare better than those who'd never been around a nut before. "In avoiding [peanuts], we've probably caused more people to not be tolerant of the food," she told me.
The most up-to-date guidelines, which come from the US National Institutes of Health, recommend that babies at risk of an allergy be exposed to peanuts between four and six months of age, to reduce the risk of them developing a full-blown allergy, but also that parents check with a healthcare provider first, just in case.
Of course, that won't help people who already suffer from allergies, and now find their dining-out choices further limited by McDonald's Canada's introduction of a new McFlurry. Going forward, though, reintegrating peanuts into our diet—especially from a young age—might eventually help bring the number of allergy sufferers down.
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