Exposing infants to peanuts might prevent them from developing food allergies later in life, a new study has found. The findings in the New England Journal of Medicine have prompted global health authorities to reconsider long-held advice that babies should avoid certain foods, amid a rise in potentially fatal peanut allergies among youths in recent years.
“The early introduction of peanut to the diets of infants at high-risk of developing peanut allergy significantly reduces the risk of peanut allergy until six years of age, even if they stop eating peanut around the age of five,” said the study, led by King’s College London.
The findings offer a follow-up to groundbreaking results announced last year from a study known as the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) trial, which included more than 600 children.
It found that high-risk babies who ate peanuts by age 11 months experienced a substantially lower rate of peanut allergy by age five than infants who avoided peanuts.
The latest study, called LEAP-On, includes evidence gleaned from following 550 children age five to six, some of whom stopped eating peanuts, while others carried on.
A halt for a year resulted in “no statistically significant increase in allergy,” said the study, noting that three youths who ate peanuts and three who avoided peanuts developed allergies between age five and six.
“Overall, the study saw a 74 percent relative reduction in the prevalence of peanut allergy in those who consumed peanut compared to those who avoided.”
Peanut allergy was far more common (18.6 percent) in children who avoided peanuts during the trial, than those who ate peanuts (4.8 percent).
The LEAP research has led to calls for change in feeding recommendations for babies. Until now officials have urged parents to avoid giving nuts to infants and toddlers — particularly those with other conditions such as eczema — until the age of two or three.
The prevalence of peanut allergies in children has doubled over the past five years in the UK. Peanut allergy is estimated now to affect 1 in 50 young infants. The reason for this increase is not fully understood, but is in line with the general increase in all forms of allergy including asthma, eczema and hayfever.
The majority of allergic reactions to peanuts are mild. Hives, eczema and vomiting are the most common complaints in children. However, some allergic reactions to peanuts can be severe, causing difficulty in breathing due to asthma or throat swelling, or a drop in blood pressure. This is known as anaphylaxis, and allergy to peanuts is one of the most common triggers.
Experts agree that many questions remain to be answered before parents can know how to adjust their children’s feeding habits to match the latest science, and that a doctor’s advice should be sought in the meantime.
“For instance, what are the correct amounts of foods needed to induce tolerance, and what is the age where it is too late to induce tolerance?” said Barry Kay, emeritus professor of allergy and clinical immunology at Imperial College London.
“So, don’t try this at home yet,” he added.