For years pediatricians have advised parents to keep their babies away from peanuts and peanut products until the children are at least 3 years old. But that advice may actually be causing the dramatic rise in the number of tots who develop peanut allergies, rather than helping to avoid it.
A new study that tested 628 British babies who were prone to developing a peanut allergy found that early exposure to peanuts — eating products containing them at least three times a week — cut their risk of developing the allergy by over 80 percent. It is the first time a study has actually reduced the risk of developing a food allergy.
According to an editorial by Dr. Rebecca S. Gruchalla of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Dr. Hugh A. Sampson of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the findings "clearly indicate that the early introduction of peanut dramatically decreases the risk of development of peanut allergy [and] makes it clear that we can do something now to reverse the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy."
The study, conducted by King's College London and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and other health and allergy organizations in the US and Britain, followed infants 4 to 11 months old who were considered at high risk for developing a peanut allergy (due to their parents' peanut allergies, their own egg allergies, or the presence of severe eczema) for five years. The participants were randomly assigned to either eat peanut-laden foods or avoid them. Those who ate the peanuts were significantly less likely to have developed a peanut allergy when they reached 5 years of age.
Researchers are linking the findings to a theory called the "hygiene hypothesis" that states that today's children are growing up in such a clean and sterile environment — due to antibacterial soaps and highly effective disinfectants — that they aren't exposed to as many allergens and microbes so their bodies can't develop resistance to them.
Considering that 2 percent of American children and 3 percent of children worldwide have peanut allergies (a number that is growing at a significantly rapid rate), the results of this study could change the way doctors address food allergies as a whole. While previous studies have suggested that early introduction of highly allergic foods can reduce the possibility of developing an allergy, this is the most conclusive study to date. But doctors warn that parents shouldn't start feeding their babies peanuts right away, as the actual nuts are a choking hazard. Parents should talk to their doctors directly to develop a plan based on their family histories.