Is it time to break out the peanut butter for baby? The findings of a new study show that giving peanut-containing products to babies could greatly cut their risk of an allergy.
The clinical trial, conducted by the Immune Tolerance Network at Kings College London and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed 550 children in the U.K. who were categorized as high-risk for developing food allergies. These children either had a family history of known allergies, or were themselves allergic to eggs and had eczema – all of which are risk markers.
The children were separated into two groups: Those who were introduced to peanuts as babies, and those were never introduced to them. All children then avoided peanuts for a full year. (Researchers collected dust samples from the children’s beds to ensure they were following the study’s guidelines.)
After the year, both groups were given allergy tests.
The results? Only 4.8% of babies exposed to peanuts early on developed an allergy, while 18.6% of those who had not been exposed were found to be allergic.
This research falls in line with other recent studies, showing a significant decrease in peanut allergies with early exposure. In fact, it was an extension of the ITN’s initial study, which showed that regularly eating peanuts in infancy – and continuing to eat them until the age of 5 – cut the rate of peanut allergies in at-risk children by 80% compared to those who were not introduced.
But scientists wanted to find out if that protection against allergies continued if children were to stop consuming peanuts for an extended period of time. The new study proved just that.
Many pediatric bodies have been asking the public to ignore older advice, which was to avoid introducing any potential allergens to high-risk children until the age of three or later. That advice was based mostly on the consensus of experts, and not on large studies looking at the impacts of early exposure.
To be fair, the instance of peanut allergies has more than doubled in North America in the past decade, affecting approximately 3% of kids, and leaving experts struggling to find potential causes and quick solutions. Scientists are still playing catch up to this speedy change in our children’s immune systems.
Dr. Nepom, Director of the Immune Tolerance Network, hopes the study will offer reassurance that eating peanut-containing foods is a natural part of our human diet, and that not eating them for a time is a safe practice for children following successful tolerance therapy. “The immune system appears to remember and sustain its tolerant state, even without continuous regular exposure to peanuts,” he said in a statement.
What’s next for this dedicated group of researchers? Longer term studies to find out how long that tolerance lasts, says Dr. Nepom.
For now, experts still advise parents to speak to their healthcare professionals about introducing children to potential allergens, particularly if there is a family history of allergies, or if a child has had a previous allergic reaction.
Image credit: “PB&J Sandwich” by Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr.com