Peanut Allergies: Prevention by Early Exposure?

Credit: United States Department of Agriculture

It might seem obvious that the best way to avoid a food allergy is to steer clear of the offending item. But a recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that just the opposite may be true: strict avoidance from a very early age may be the wrong strategy when it comes to kids at high risk of developing an allergy to peanuts [1].

The study found that feeding peanut-rich foods to some high-risk infants actually helps their developing immune systems learn to tolerate peanuts better, apparently helping them avoid this serious allergy later in life. While it’s too soon to recommend stepping up peanut consumption among all babies, the findings provide striking new insights into how food allergies develop and how they might be avoided.

One thing is clear: a growing number of parents and schools are contending with children with peanut allergies. In the United States, peanut allergies have quadrupled over the past 13 years and now affect more than 2 percent of Americans. This trend is so troubling that some airlines have stopped serving peanuts on flights, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to ask students not to bring peanut butter or other peanut products to school.

The latest study arose from an observation by Gideon Lack of Kings College London and his colleagues, published in 2008 [2], that Jewish children in London developed peanut allergies at 10 times the rate of their counterparts in Israel. Probing the eating habits of infants in both countries, they discovered that parents in Israel often introduce their babies to a popular peanut-based snack called Bamba around the age of 7 months.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.