Feeding peanut to infants decreases the risk of peanut allergy

February 24, 2015 Kevin Dooms, MD

This week an important new study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that infants and toddlers exposed to peanut at a young age have a significantly lower risk of developing peanut allergy.

The study took place at King’s College in London, and involved 640 infants at high risk for developing peanut allergy (infants who already had severe eczema or egg allergy). Starting as early as 4 months of age, half of the babies in the study began eating peanut on a regular basis.  The other half of babies completely avoided peanut until they were 5.

When the children in the study reached their fifth birthday, researchers compared the rates of peanut allergy in the two groups.  In the children who had completely avoided peanut until age 5, the rate of peanut allergy was 13.7%.  For those children who began eating peanut as an infant, the rate of peanut allergy was only 1.9%.  This difference represents an impressive 81% overall reduction in the rate of peanut allergy.

Results from this landmark study herald a dramatic departure from recent food allergy recommendations.  Instead of avoiding peanut in early childhood, the study suggests deliberately exposing infants and toddlers to peanut protein as a way of preventing peanut allergy.

The study was inspired by an observation that the rate of peanut allergy in Israel is only a fraction of that in other industrialized countries.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Israeli infants and toddlers are routinely fed a peanut-coated snack called Bamba (think corn puff coated in peanut powder).  Researchers at King’s College tried to replicate these conditions by having infants in the study eat 6 grams (about ½ tablespoon) of peanut protein per week.

While it’s just a single study, the findings suggest we may need to re-think the way we approach food introduction and food allergy.  It may also come at a good time, as the rates of food allergy have been rising dramatically in the past several years.  There are still no cures for food allergy, but now we may have strong evidence about ways to prevent food allergy.  Most likely this study will inspire further research into other high-risk allergy foods like dairy, egg, and seafood.

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