Go Nuts! Study Finds Feeding Babies Peanut Products May Prevent Allergies

Keeping infants away from such foods could be partly to blame for the allergy epidemic.

(Photo: Ashley Boomer/Getty Images)

Feb 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Whack! That’s the sound of whiplash for millions of pediatricians across the country as they dramatically rethink everything they’ve been telling anxious parent for years about peanut allergies. Total avoidance of peanuts, it seems, might not have been the best approach to take.

New research published Monday in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that babies between four and 11 months old who were regularly fed food containing peanuts were significantly less likely to develop peanut allergies later on. What’s more, these infants were selected because they were considered to be at high risk for peanut allergy, though the study excluded babies whose tests showed they were already allergic to peanuts.

In a separate editorial published in the Journal, two pediatricians not involved with the study said the research “clearly indicates that the early introduction of peanut dramatically decreases the risk of development of peanut allergy,” and that the results “makes it clear that we can do something now to reverse the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy.”

In the past two decades, the number of American children who are allergic to peanuts has more than quadrupled, a phenomenon that has puzzled scientists and transformed the humble PB&J from a lunchtime staple to a lunchroom pariah at day care centers and schools.

Ironically, all that peanut avoidance—at least when it comes to very young children—could be what's in part causing the peanut allergy epidemic.

Keeping babies away from peanuts (or more specifically, food containing peanuts, because no one in their right mind would try to feed a baby whole nuts) “could have been in part responsible for the rise in peanut allergies we have seen,” Dr. Gideon Lack, professor of pediatric allergy at King’s College London and leader of the current study, told The New York Times.

Lack got the idea for his study in 2000. He was giving a talk in Israel and asked doctors in the audience how many of them had patients with peanut allergy and was surprised to see only a few hands go up. “In the U.K., if you had asked that question, every single member of the audience would have put up their hand,” he told the Times. Lack was further intrigued to learn that Israeli parents often feed their young children snacks such as Bamba, which is made from peanut butter and corn.

To put his hypothesis to the test, Lack recruited 530 infants between the ages of four and 11 months who, because they already suffered from severe eczema or were allergic to eggs, were at a higher risk of developing peanut allergy. In a randomized trial, the parents of half the children were instructed to feed their babies at least six grams of peanut protein per week spread out over three or more meals, while the parents of the rest of the children were told to avoid peanuts.

When the children turned five, they were given another allergy test. Remarkably, less than 2 percent of the children who regularly ate peanuts tested positive for peanut allergy, while almost 14 percent of children in the no-peanut group did.

The results are almost certain to cause leading pediatric organizations to reconsider their recommendations regarding kids and peanuts. As recently as eight years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics was telling parents whose kids might be particularly susceptible to developing peanut allergy to withhold peanuts until the age of three. The academy changed its tune in 2008, but it did not go so far as to tell parents to start feeding their babies peanut-based foods. With this new study, pediatricians may now start to recommend feeding peanut products to their young children.

But for those parents with children older than 11 months who have dutifully been keeping their kids away from peanuts, don’t break out the Skippy just yet.

“If you’re a parent sitting at home with your child looking at them saying, ‘Well, gee, they didn’t eat peanut yet. Maybe I should run to the cupboard and get some peanut butter for them,’ it could be a little dangerous because if you do that and the child has a bad allergic reaction, you would be at home and have a problem,” Scott Sicherer, who advises the American Academy of Pediatrics on allergies, tells NPR.

Instead, Sicherer recommends that parents who think their child might be allergic get them tested and consult with their pediatrician on the best way forward.

For a whole new generation of babies, though, the future looks nutty indeed.