Worried about your child developing food allergies? You may want to feed them this.
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As someone whose passion and career revolves around food, one of my biggest fears when I got pregnant was that my kid would develop a food allergy. No, it’s definitely not the worst that can happen, but it wasn’t altogether unlikely either, given that food allergies have been on the rise for a while now, and no one really knows why. The idea of having to banish eggs from the house or pack nut-free lunches kept me up at night.

But according to the latest guidelines issues by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), avoiding trigger foods may not be the solution at all. In fact, experts now say that introducing peanut products into the diet early—as early as 4 months for high-risk groups—may be our best defense against future allergies.

This flies in the face of previous beliefs and policies and represents a “major shift” in how we think about allergen exposure, says Michael Pistiner, MD, director of food allergy advocacy, education and prevention at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents delay introducing the most common allergens (peanuts are up there) until kids were between three and five years old, but withdrew those recommendations in 2008.

The NIAID’s stance is based on the results of strong, large-scale study known as LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy). When infants who were deemed to be at high risk of developing a peanut allergy and then were screened to determine that they did not already have a peanut allergy, and then had peanut products added to their diets between the ages of 4 and 6 months, their risk of actually developing an allergy to the nuts fell by as much as 80 percent. These results may indicate that the immune system in the human gut plays a role in helping us orally tolerate foods, says Pistiner. “That young age is when the immune system is developing and seems ideal for learning tolerance.”

Though the LEAP study used ground peanut powder, several companies have sprung up with products specifically geared toward exposing your baby to common allergens—including those that were not specifically studied, such as soy and wheat—to avoid full-blown future allergies. Hello Peanut offers packets with increasing amounts of peanut powder (with oat flakes to help it better blend with baby food) to gradually expose your infant; SpoonfulOne offers a powdered supplement you can add to your baby’s food as a subscription and is planning to come out with a line of foods infused with the stuff as well.

These products offer a convenient alternative to standard peanut butter (which works just fine, according to Pistiner), but when selecting one for your little peanut, it’s important to check the protein content. “The majority of what triggers any allergic reaction in a food is the protein,” says Pistiner.

The guidelines based on the LEAP study suggest that high-risk kids receive six to seven grams of peanut protein a week, about the amount in six teaspoons of peanut butter, peanut flout, or peanut powder (NIAID suggests two teaspoons three times a week.) Some products don’t contain that amount but still have misleading claims on their labels. 

Also, though it makes sense that early introduction of peanuts would have a similar effect in all infants, the study only looked at those who were pre-screened as having other risk factors for peanut allergy—such as eczema or an egg allergy—so there’s no guarantee. And no baby who has been diagnosed with a peanut allergy should be exposed to peanuts in any form since food allergies are not yet reversible. Ultimately, you should consult your child’s healthcare provider about whether early exposure could work for you, and of course, never give a child under age 5 loose nuts, since they’re a choking hazard. 

But I can’t be the only parent who finds it welcome news that I do something to possibly help prevent food allergies. Now if science could just find a way to get my kid to eat more vegetables.