Can feeding babies peanut products prevent allergies?

A recent study suggests that you could prevent allergies if you feed your baby peanut products rather than avoiding them. But how accurate is this? We investigate.

Fifteen years ago, with nut allergies on the increase, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that children avoid peanuts until the age of three. But this conventional wisdom has now been turned on its head by a new study suggesting that many, if not most, peanut allergies can be prevented by feeding young children products containing peanuts from infancy.

About 30-40% of children will develop some form of allergy during their childhood years. While there are no peanut allergy statistics available for South Africa, local allergy specialist Dr Adrian Morris, says at least one in 50 children have a peanut allergy. “About 2% of American children are allergic to peanuts,” according to The New York Times.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the early introduction of peanuts dramatically decreases the risk of developing a peanut allergy. The study randomly tested more than 600 children between the ages of four and 11 months for a five-year period to show that regularly eating products containing nuts would help protect their immune systems rather than create an allergic response.

17% of the children who avoided peanuts developed a peanut allergy by the age of five, while only 3% of the children selected to eat a peanut snack three times a week developed an allergy within the same time period. Click here to read how the study was conducted.

The leader of the study, Dr Gideon Lack, a professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College in London, said the common practice of withholding peanuts from babies could have been in part responsible for the rise in peanut allergies. In the United States, where avoidance of peanuts and tree nuts during pregnancy, lactation and infancy is promoted, nut allergy has doubled over the past 10 years. Peanut allergy is now the leading cause of anaphylaxis and food allergy-related deaths.

Whether babies should be fed peanuts and other foods associated with allergies is one of the most common questions parents ask when introducing solids to their baby. Dr Morris’s advice is to expose your child to all types of foods and environments from an early age. “According to the Hygiene Hypothesis, early exposure to bugs and food can switch off allergies while later exposure can switch allergies on. By introducing your child to foods like peanuts and eggs early on, you’ll find out soon enough if he has an allergy. But, if you only introduce these foods at a later stage, it may worsen the problem if a child has an allergy.”

Click here for information on how to spot whether or not your child has a food allergy. 

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