Feeding babies as young as four months foods such as peanuts and eggs can significantly reduce the risk of them developing dangerous allergies to the foods later in life, new research suggests.
The conclusion from 146 studies involving 200,000 children adds to the evidence that a rise in allergies has partly been driven by health advice urging parents to avoid nuts.
However, the researchers did not find evidence that children were protected from allergies by being fed other foods such as wheat, milk or almonds earlier.
Allergy rates have risen since health guidance was issued in 1998 that young children should avoid peanuts. Evidence is mounting that the advice, now withdrawn, was counterproductive.
A trial last year found that babies given peanuts were 80% less likely to develop allergies. The latest overview found that children between four and six months who were fed eggs were 40% less likely to develop an allergy. Those who had peanuts between four and eleven months were 70% less likely to develop an allergy.
“This new analysis . . . suggests introducing egg and peanut at an early age may prevent two of the most common childhood food allergies,” said Robert Boyle of Imperial College London and lead author of the research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Eggs and peanuts are not recommended for children who are already allergic. Dr Boyle added: “Whole nuts should be avoided; if you feed peanut to your baby, give it as smooth peanut butter.”
The work was carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency, which said: “The government is considering these important findings as part of its review of complementary feeding for infants to ensure its advice reflects the best available evidence. Families should continue to follow the longstanding advice to exclusively breastfeed for around the first six months because of the health benefits to mothers and babies.”
About 5% of people in Britain have an egg allergy and 2.5% are allergic to peanuts.
Anthony Frew, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: “Earlier medical advice, not to delay introducing potentially allergenic foods, has largely been vindicated. Much anxiety and some harm was caused by UK government’s 1998 advice on peanut avoidance in high-risk infants being extrapolated to the wider low-risk population.”