Conventional wisdom has long held that if a child is at risk for peanut allergies, it’s best to delay exposure as long as possible. But in recent years, research has shown that early exposure is key to preventing allergies to peanuts.
In 2017, guidelines in the United States and the UK stated that it’s best to introduce allergens like peanuts around the time that children begin to eat solid food, usually between 4 and 6 months. Children who are at risk for allergies should undergo a blood or prick test before introducing peanuts.
An Israeli Snack Called Bamba
The revolution in thinking actually started when researchers decided to investigate why there was such a low rate of peanut allergies in Israel. They discovered that most Israeli children were introduced early on to a peanut snack called Bamba. In fact, 90% of Israeli families buy Bamba on a regular basis. This snack is soft and easy to chew, so Israeli parents use it as one of baby’s first finger foods.
According to Dr. Eiliana Aaron, "On top of this, peanuts are practically a national obsession. They are everywhere and in everything. It all sounds like the recipe for an allergy epidemic, and yet it produced the opposite."
A study was then conducted on babies who had egg allergies or eczema, which are both indicators of a future peanut allergy. One group was not fed any peanut products, while the other ate peanut butter or Bamba three times a week. At age 5, when both groups were tested for peanut allergies, researchers found that exposure to peanuts in the first year reduced the risk of peanut allergy by 81%.
Preventing Other Food Allergies
As a result of this study, researchers began to study the effects of early exposure to other food allergens, such as milk, wheat and eggs. The results of these studies suggest that children exposed to allergens before the age of one were less likely to develop food allergies. However, evidence is not as strong as it is for peanut allergies.
New guidelines were then issued which recommended early exposure, especially for babies who are at risk for allergies. Testing for peanut allergies is recommended before introducing foods with peanuts, but other allergies have a high incidence of false positives, so testing is not recommended for them.
Before introducing babies to food allergies, parents should learn the signs of food allergies. A rash, vomiting, flushed skin, scratching, coughing or breathing problems can be signs of food allergies, and medical treatment should be sought at once.
Food Allergies and Pregnancy
Many women who have allergies in their families have chosen to avoid eating allergens during pregnancy in an effort to prevent food allergies. This precaution has proven to be ineffective, and pregnant women do not have to be cautious about eating common allergens. Of course, pregnant women who have other children at home with food allergies should be vigilant about not exposing those children to allergens by leaving them around or by cross-contact.
Feed Them Peanuts
Whole peanuts and big globs of peanut butter can be a choking hazard and shouldn’t be fed to children until age 4. But thinly spread peanut butter on bread or a snack like Bamba can be fed to kids as soon as they start eating solids and reduce the likelihood that they will develop a peanut allergy.