This may sound nuts, but eating, not avoiding, peanuts could ward off allergies.
A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that today's epidemic of peanut allergies in children could be mitigated by early and, for the allergy-prone, carefully monitored exposure to peanuts.
The years-long study included hundreds of infants in the United Kingdom between the ages of four and 10 months. It found that allergy-prone babies — those who displayed either eczema or an egg allergy — were far less likely to develop peanut allergies if they were fed controlled doses of a peanut snack until they were five years old.
The babies in the study were divided into two groups: Ones who showed potential for a peanut allergy using a skin-prick test and ones who didn't. They were again divided into groups that either consumed peanuts or didn't for the duration of the study. Among kids already predisposed to a peanut allergy, a little more than 35% of those who didn't eat peanuts were allergic by the time they were five. But among the allergy-prone kids who were fed peanuts, fewer than 11% developed an allergy.
The results were also pronounced for babies in the group who didn't show potential for a peanut allergy. About 14% of those who avoided peanuts developed an allergy, but only around 2% of those who were fed peanuts were allergic to them by the age of five.
"There's still a lot of information that we need to gather, but this is really a monumental study," says Rafael Firszt, MD, a pediatric allergist at University of Utah. Finding a way to halt the rising number of peanut allergies in American kids is a challenge that has vexed scientists for years.
"This is the first time ever we're looking at a primary prevention study. It answers a lot of questions about how the immune response develops food allergies," he says.
If you have a young child who doesn't have issues with allergies, don't be afraid to let them eat peanut products, Firszt says.
But he also advises caution for parents. For allergy-prone infants, "This should not be done outside a clinical setting," he says. Consult with your pediatrician or allergist on the best course of action. And giving plain peanuts to babies is not advised because they could pose a choking risk, he adds.