When the Northwestern Wildcats face off against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Ryan Field in Evanston on Saturday, something will be missing: peanuts.
Northwestern University is hosting its first peanut-free football game to give fans with allergies a chance to focus on the game instead of worrying about negative reactions to the popular stadium snack, which can range from mild irritation to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
That’s a big draw for Joyce Mason’s family, Northwestern fans from Gurnee. Mason’s daughter Julie, 13, has a potentially life-threatening peanut allergy. Safeguards such as wiping down the seats and traveling with two EpiPens to counter severe reactions aren’t always enough.
At a Cubs game a few years ago, Julie broke out in hives and began wheezing despite taking all of those precautions, Mason said, so now they attend only peanut-free games.
Peanut allergies affect about five of every 1,000 Americans and are on the rise, said Raoul Wolf, chief of the pediatric allergy and immunology section at University of Chicago Medicine. Though closed environments like airplanes pose a greater danger, stadiums can be “a huge risk,” Wolf said. “If you can smell the peanuts, there’s enough protein in the air to cause a bad reaction. For the most sensitive patients, it’s not a risk worth taking.”
Several major and minor league baseball teams, including the White Sox, Cubs and Kane County Cougars have banned peanuts in certain sections at select games, as have the Wolves hockey team.
But the Wildcats may be the first college team to host an allergy-friendly game, said Dan Yopchick, a Northwestern spokesman. The NCAA does not track which teams offer peanut-free events.
No peanut products will be sold or permitted inside Ryan Field on Saturday. They’ve already started powerwashing the stadium’s nearly 50,000 seats to eliminate any peanut residue. However, fans with severe allergies should still take precautions, Yopchick said.
While some will miss a favorite game-day food, it will be a huge relief for fans with allergies, said Julie Campbell, president of the not-for-profit Illinois Food Allergy Education Association.
“When the whole game is peanut-free, you can relax and enjoy the game like everybody else,” Campbell said.