Eating Peanuts Early in Life May Prevent Peanut Allergies

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Janet Fang 25 Feb 2015, 02:03

A study with hundreds of infants at high risk of developing peanut allergies has revealed the unthinkable: Eating peanutty treats early often protected them from peanut allergies by the time they were 5 years old. Infants who avoided peanuts, on the other hand, were several times more likely to develop the allergy. The landmark study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week. 

Peanut allergies affect up to three percent of school-aged children in the U.S., western Europe, and Australia, and it’s also becoming a major player in food allergies in Asian and African countries as well. And for years, health guidelines, pediatricians and allergists alike have recommended avoiding it altogether in an infant’s diet. Well as it turns out, avoidance seems to make the problem worse. "For a study to show a benefit of this magnitude in the prevention of peanut allergy is without precedent,” Anthony Fauci of U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says in a statement. “The results have the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention."

A randomized, controlled trial called LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) enrolled 640 infants from Evelina London Children’s Hospital between 4 and 11 months of age with severe eczema, egg allergy, or both (these indicate a high risk of developing a peanut allergy). They were given a skin-prick test, then randomly assigned into a peanut consumption group or a peanut avoidance group.

The infants in the consumption group who had positive skin-prick test results were given a total of 3.9 grams of peanut protein over incremental doses. If they didn’t have a reaction to this baseline challenge, they were given at least 6 grams of peanut protein a week spread out over at least three meals until they were 60 months old. The peanut source of choice was Bamba (right), a snack made of peanut butter and puffed corn; but if the babies didn’t like Bamba, they were offered smooth peanut butter by the brands Sunpat or Duerr's. 

By the time the children were 5 years old, less than 1 percent of those in the peanut-eating group had developed peanut allergy. On the other hand, 17.3 percent of the children in the avoidance group developed the allergy. That’s an 81 percent reduction in the subsequent development of peanut allergy.

“This is an important clinical development and contravenes previous guidelines,” LEAP team leader Gideon Lack of King’s College London says in a news release. “Whilst these were withdrawn in 2008 in the UK and US, our study suggests that new guidelines may be needed to reduce the rate of peanut allergy in our children.” Up next, the LEAP study will continue to monitor these children to see if they stay protected against the allergy even if they stop eating peanuts for a year.

Images: saschanti17 (top), David Orcea (middle) via shutterstock.com

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