Are peanuts the answer to curbing the explosion of peanut allergies? It may sound nuts, but a landmark new study is saying exactly that.
Four years ago, health officials began advising Australian parents to introduce all sorts of foods – including common allergens such as peanuts, wheat, egg, sesame and soy – to babies as early as four to six months old.
But Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia president Maria Said says for years beforehand, parents were told to avoid exposing infants to those foods – and that has left its mark.
“There is a bit of resistance because parents are petrified of giving their kids nuts because they’ve heard of all these horror stories,” she says. “We even have health professionals who are worried. We have people sitting in hospital car parks to expose their kids to the major allergens.”
In fact, US parents are still told to steer clear of peanuts for the first three years of life to prevent allergy. But a landmark new study is set to change thinking across the world, once and for all.
Researchers studied 640 UK babies deemed at high risk of peanut allergies, all aged four to 11 months. Half were given peanuts three times a week, while the other half ate no peanut products at all.
After five years, about 17 per cent of the children who avoided peanuts had developed an allergy – compared with just 3 per cent of those given peanuts over the trial. In other words, a staggering 81 per cent reduction in the rate of peanut allergies between the two groups, says the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“For a study to show a benefit of this magnitude in the prevention of peanut allergy is without precedent,” says Dr Anthony Fauci, director of US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the study. “The results have the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention.”
Paediatrician Dr Richard Besser tells Good Morning America one theory is that children need to be exposed to allergens early in life so their immune system “tones down”. “It gets used to seeing these things so when it sees them later, it doesn’t develop all these reactions that we’re seeing right now,” he says.
Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia says peanut allergy affects about three per cent of children under one. About a fifth of allergies will resolve, but another 20 per cent will worsen. Ms Said says while parents are now advised to give their children nuts when they start solids, many are unsure how to introduce them.
“You might put a little bit of nut in their vegetables, some peanut butter with their veggies and introduce it as another food group so to speak,” she says. “The advice will be that you introduce that food like you introduce any other, but you might do it when your partner is home, not just before sleep; just think about the timing so if something does go wrong you can get help quickly.”
She says parents who have an older child being treated by an allergy specialist should seek advice from that specialist before introducing potential allergens to a baby sibling.
“For kids at high risk of developing food allergy, people are going to be quite cautious about introducing food so they need support and guidance on how to do that,” she says. Likewise, anyone concerned about introducing peanuts to their babies should first talk to their doctor or maternal health nurse.
For more information on allergies and introducing nuts and other allergens into the diet, visit Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia or the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.