Early exposure to peanuts and eggs reduces risk of food allergies
Food allergies are an increasing problem, and for affected people treatment is often limited to avoiding the trigger food. But a comprehensive study from the UK has now found that introducing children to certain foods at an early age is associated with a lower risk of developing allergies – and interestingly, the correlation is clear even when subjects didn’t stick strictly to the regime.
Given the cutesy name of the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study, the research recruited more than 1,300 infants from England and Wales. The children were split into two groups – the Early Introduction Group (EIG) was given allergenic foods like eggs and peanuts from three months of age, alongside their regular breastfeeding. For the Standard Introduction Group (SIG), these foods were held off until six months of age.
The results were pretty clear, and were analyzed in three new papers. Children who were introduced to the foods early had a much lower rate of allergies to them later on, compared to the children who avoided the foods until later. For those kids that showed signs of sensitivity to some kind of food when the study started, 34.2 percent of them went on to develop a full-blown allergy if they waited six months. Only 19.2 percent of those exposed at three months developed allergies.
There are similar results in specific groups. Of the kids who were sensitized to peanuts from the beginning, a third of those in the SIG developed peanut allergies, compared to 14.3 percent in the EIG. Almost half of the egg-sensitive children in the SIG ended up with an allergy, compared to 30 percent of those in the EIG.
Importantly, it goes the other way too. For those who weren’t at a high risk of allergies, introducing foods early didn’t increase their risk of developing allergies. This undercuts some earlier assumptions and recommendations that children should avoid allergenic foods until six months of age.
That said, the process only seems to apply to those infants already at higher risk of developing allergies. For those that showed no signs of sensitization at enrolment in the study, it seemed to make no statistical difference to allergy rates whether the foods were introduced at three or six months.
“We have shown that the early introduction of foods that causes allergies can significantly reduce the chances of high-risk infants developing peanut and egg allergy,” says Michael Perkin, co-principal investigator of the EAT study. “Our research adds to the body of evidence that early introduction of allergenic foods may play a significant role in curbing the allergy epidemic.”
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the study is that it didn’t seem to matter too much if parents couldn’t stick to the program. The researchers laid out a regime for parents of children in the EIG to follow, instructing them to regularly give their kids high doses of five allergenic foods. Only 42 percent of participants in the EIG managed to stick to it, and yet allergy rates still dropped.
One of the papers investigated why parents couldn’t adhere to the guidelines. The three most common reasons were that the children refused the foods, caregivers were concerned about allergic reactions, and that it just wasn’t practical in the lifestyles of the participants. These hurdles may need to be taken into account when creating new guidelines for parents to follow, to reduce the risks of their children developing food allergies.
“As we move to issue new infant feeding guidelines these findings will inform the debate as to whether the effort to introduce potentially allergenic foods into babies’ diets are best directed at those most at risk (as defined in the paper) or more generally on a population basis,” says Michael Walker, a Consultant Referee Analyst at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist who was not involved in the study. “Does this mean parents should be giving eggs and peanuts to their infants? Yes. However, those particularly at risk, e.g. moderate to severe eczema, already sensitized or other at-risk babies or perhaps with a family history of allergy should seek prior advice from their GP.”
Source: King’s College London