There’s no doubt that scientific research can be befuddling. One minute, hot coffee causes cancer, the next minute, it’s a cure-all. But the back and forth can be especially frustrating when it comes to particularly important topics, such as how to introduce allergens to babies. However, mounting evidence now suggests that early exposure does in fact help babies avoid developing allergies.
For many years, mothers have been instructed by their friends, family members, and even doctors to avoid introducing allergens for the first few years of life – ideally until the age of 3 – to help prevent food allergies in infants who are at high risk (i.e. those with first-degree relatives with food allergies). Expecting mothers were told to avoid the top food allergens – specifically eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, etc. – during their pregnancy and throughout breastfeeding in order to prevent exposure of the foods to the infant. The avoidance of these foods was due to the belief that early intestinal exposure to allergenic foods would make the intestinal lining more sensitive, thus putting the child at a greater risk for lifetime allergies.
But hold up. There’s new evidence, however, that introducing top allergens into an infants diet early on – at about 4 to 6 months of age – may actually help prevent allergies. For example, the risk of development of peanut allergies was 10 times higher among Jewish children in the United Kingdom than in Israeli children of similar ancestry. This contrasting difference in peanut allergies is largely correlated to the time at which peanuts are introduced in the diet of these countries. In the U.K. infants generally are not exposed to peanuts in the first year of life, whereas in Israel peanut-based foods are usually introduced at 7 months of age on average. A trial support by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that “regular peanut consumption begun in infancy and continued until 5 years of age led to an 81 percent reduction in developing peanut allergies in infants deemed at high risk because they had severe eczema, egg allergy or both.”
Introducing top allergens into an infants diet early on – at about 4 to 6 months of age – may actually help prevent allergies. Raheli Kory
The study does strongly advise, however, that parents of infants and children with eczema or egg allergies should consult with an allergist, pediatrician or their general practitioner prior to feeding them peanut products, and should be tested for an already existed allergy.
After being instructed for so many years to avoid the introduction of allergen foods until later years of childhood, this information can be a lot to swallow and more research is still necessary to determine the exact science to prevent onset of food allergies. Yet no current research has proved the theory that delayed exposure to allergens helps to prevent the onset of food allergies.
PRO-TIP Several Yumi readers have asked us how to expose their babes to nuts, especially at an early age when they are still getting used to solid foods. Below are few pointers:
Start with small servings. Use small doses so you can gauge your kid’s reaction to nuts.
Don’t give whole nuts. Whole nuts will be a choking hazard, especially if your child hasn’t developed the ability to properly chew yet.
Avoid brands with added sugar/salt. Be sure to read the back of the label. There are plenty of brands made without added sugar/oil/salt.
Try powdered nut butters. The powdered version of nut butters make it easy to add a small amount to your baby’s puree, mashed bananas, or other foods.
Consult with your infant’s pediatrician or general practitioner before incorporating food allergens at 6 months of age.
Raheli Kory, MS RD, is a registered dietitian and a former clinical dietitian at the Valley Presbyterian Hospital.