Whether you have a peanut allergy, or you know someone who does — you may have found yourself double — checking labels or restaurant menus to make sure the food in question has no trace of a peanut. Though it seems like common knowledge, a researcher from Princeton argues that such habitual allergy awareness wasn't always present in American society.

Miranda Waggoner is a postdoctoral researcher at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In a recent study, she analyzed the journey of the peanut allergy from its early days of being nearly unheard of, to its prevalence and influence in today's society, where schools, restaurants, airlines and other public places have taken steps to enforce safety by banning peanuts.

"I argue that the peanut allergy epidemic was co-constructed through interactions between experts, publics, biomedical categories, and institutions, while social reactions to the putative epidemic expanded the sphere of surveillance and awareness of peanut allergy risk," Waggoner wrote in an article which was published in Social Science & Medicine.

Waggoner says that before 1980, there was very little, if any, discussion of peanut allergies in medical literature or in the media. However, peanut allergies gradually became more prominent and in 1990, medical journals started picking up on their seriousness. As a result, the media began spotlighting the often drastic side of allergic reactions — anaphylactic shock — publishing headlines like "Nut Allergy Girl's Terror; Girl Almost Dies from Peanut Allergy."

The peanut allergy phenomenon earned its label as an "epidemic" in the following years, as more children were found to have allergic reactions to peanuts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. children with peanut allergies increased by 17 percent between 1997 and 2008. Allergic reactions could range from mild rashes to anaphylactic shock, and in some rare cases, death.

In 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) mandated that products containing major food allergens like milk, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts be labelled appropriately to prevent any accidental allergic reactions.

Airlines, for example, no longer offer their once-staple snack of pre-packaged peanuts. In May, a woman with a peanut allergy suffered a severe reaction after the passenger next to her opened up a bag of peanuts brought from home. After an emergency landing and a 2-day stay at a hospital, the woman sued United Airlines for having assured her that her peanut allergy wouldn't be a problem.

Whether or not peanut allergies can be called an epidemic is still being debated. Because food allergies were not largely documented or discussed for more than half of the first part of the 20th century, it's difficult to discern whether this is an entirely recent phenomenon.

One Harvard professor, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, pointed out in a commentary published in the British Medical Journal that about 150 Americans die from allergies per year — compared to the 100 people who are struck by lightning yearly.

Likewise, Waggoner is still uncertain as to why peanut allergies have received such hype, when other food allergies afflict even more of the American population. She argues in her paper that "while eight foods account for over 90 percent of food allergy reactions, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, the peanut allergy has arguably received the largest share of medical and social attention." About one percent of Americans have a peanut allergy.