New Studies Shows that Early Peanut Consumption Prevents Development of Peanut Allergy
Parents and Peanut Allergies
With the growing incidence of peanut allergies and the consequent deaths that are often reported on the news, many parents instinctively avoid feeding their children peanuts, assuming that the nuts may cause an adverse and scary reaction in their kids. Even doctors themselves have been known to urge parents to refrain from exposing their babies to peanuts. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics specifically advised parents to avoid feeding their babies peanuts if they were at risk for allergies.
Groundbreaking research conducted over the past five years and finally published paints a new picture of how this intuitive reaction to the growing issue of peanut allergies may actually exacerbate the problem. A study published earlier this year in one of the most respected medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that exposing babies to peanut products reduces the risk of peanut allergy by 70-86% in those infants at high risk for developing the allergy. The researchers conducting the study, led by Dr. Gideon Lack, presented their findings at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAI) conference in Houston in February.
Study Shows Peanut Exposure May Help
For their study, the researchers tested the idea that regularly eating peanuts during the first year of life would protect against the development of peanut allergies by allowing the immune system to get used to peanuts. The idea for the study stemmed from observations that Jewish children in Israel develop peanut allergies 10 times less frequently than do those in England – and also start eating peanuts much earlier in life, usually before they are a year old. Other motivations for the study were the observations that early introduction of eggs and milk could reduce the development of allergies to these products, often also associated with food allergy. Because these observations were merely observations – and not controlled studies, the researchers wanted to design studies that would allow them to collect meaningful data on the effects of early exposure to allergens on the later development of relevant allergies.
The investigators tested their idea on over 600 infants, ranging from 4 months to 11 months in age. All of these infants were categorized as high risk due to egg allergy, eczema, or both. Approximately half of the children served as a control and were kept away from peanuts, whereas the other half were given snacks containing peanuts three or more times each week until they were five years old. When these children were tested for peanut allergies at the age of 5, only 3.2% of those who ate peanut snacks as babies had developed peanut allergies, compared to 17.2% of those in the group that did not ingest peanuts as babies.
The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), an institution dedicated to improving the quality of life and treatment options for those suffering from food allergies, funded this critical research study. Their CEO, James Baker, importantly pointed out at the meeting that the specific timing of initial peanut exposure can significantly impact the likelihood of developing a peanut allergy. FARE also emphasized that these results should not be interpreted to mean that older children and adults who are already diagnosed with peanut allergies should expose themselves to peanuts as a way to cure themselves of the allergy. Though techniques in this spirit are often used therapeutically, in strategies known as immunotherapies, these therapies should be administered and monitored by physicians. While some reports have noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) may be incorrect in recommending that people avoid peanuts if they are allergic, those with peanut allergies do still need to use significant precautions around peanuts. Indeed, the study excluded babies who already showed signs of peanut allergies and so does not offer data on how peanut exposure affects existing allergies.
Though the results of the study on the impact of early peanut exposure to the later development of peanut allergies is striking and highly promising in terms of our growing understanding of peanut allergies and how to protect against them, as with any influential scientific study, the results may open up more questions than they answer. First, will these protected children continue to be protected against peanut allergies later in life and into adulthood? Future research programs aim to track these children to answer that question.
More research will also need to be conducted to determine the optimal exposure dose and timing so that we can best leverage our ability to prevent peanut allergy development and potentially alter guidelines accordingly. For now, the results provide relevant physicians with new data and opportunities for helping their patients avoid the detriments of peanut allergies. With time, we may know enough about the development of peanut allergies to make general recommendations for all parents to follow.