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Stop and Think Before Stuffing Your Baby with Peanuts

Although a new study about preventing peanut allergies has proven exciting, it's important to exercise caution before cramming spoonfuls of Jif into your baby's mouth.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
February 25, 2015, 10:41pm
Photo via Flickr user Kat Goldin

Yesterday, the internet practically exploded with stories about a recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine showing that feeding babies peanut products in infancy could prevent the development of a severe peanut allergy later in life. It sounded like the easiest, best cure imaginable for a rapidly ballooning problem: no doctors, no expensive tests and treatments. Just you, your baby, and a jar of peanut butter.

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But like many things in life, the oversimplified takeaway from the study may be too good to be true.

Three times as many children are allergic to peanuts now than in 1997, resulting in an ongoing parental hysteria—banning PB&Js from schools, attempting to stop peanut snack service during flights—that has proven divisive and frustrating for both sides. So needless to say, the bottom line of the study, that the risk of developing such an allergy could be reduced by more than 80 percent, was exciting to many.

The study followed 640 children with severe eczema, an egg allergy, or both afflictions (which can indicate an increased vulnerability to peanut allergies) from the time that they were only a few months old until they reached age five. The children were pre-screened via skin-prick test for risk of developing an adverse reaction to peanuts. Then, one group of the subjects was fed small doses of peanut regularly for the span of the study, while the other avoided them entirely. Of the children who were not deemed to be at high allergy risk at the onset of the study, 13.7 percent of the children who had avoided peanuts had developed an allergic peanut response by age five—compared to a mere 1.9 percent for the "consumption group." As for the high-risk babies, more than a third of children in the peanut-avoiding group developed the allergy, while only 10.6 percent of those in the consumption group did.

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So it seems pretty straightforward, right? You should just cram a spoon of Jif into your baby's mouth every other day, and you'll be much less likely to have to stab their thigh with an Epi-Pen every few months until they leave for college.

Not so fast. It's not quite that simple.

Parents who read some of yesterday's headlines without deeper probing may think that that's the end-all gist, applicable to any baby. But the study isn't meant to be interpreted as a quick 'n' easy home treatment where the more peanuts, the better.

The researchers based their study on the observation that Jewish Israeli children who ate peanuts often and early in life were ten times less likely to become allergic to them than English children, who are exposed to peanuts far less regularly.

A separate study presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology supported the potential applications of Viaskin, a skin patch that slowly, safely exposes the body of peanut-averse and peanut-allergic children and adults to very small doses of the nut—in effect, offering a type of simplified immunotherapy that trains your immune system to stop flipping out every time you're near someone eating a PayDay. But here's the catch: during the study, it took a year of continuous patch usage before subjects were able to tolerate about 1 gram of peanut protein—the equivalent of just four peanuts.

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The patches contain minute, controlled levels of peanut protein, and would essentially take you from "throat closing at the sight of satay" territory to "OK with labels that say 'May contain traces of peanuts.'"

In terms of yesterday's big news, here's what to consider: if your child already has a peanut allergy, you should not be feeding them Snickers bars in attempts to "cure" them. But it is possible, or even suggested by the study, that parental avoidance of peanuts altogether in their early years of life—for fear of anaphylaxis—could be exacerbating its risk rather than mitigating it.

Dr. Melissa Tribuzio of Red Rose Pediatric Associates tells LancasterOnline that children shouldn't be eating whole nuts until they're three years old, when the risk of choking is reduced. But if you've had your child tested by a doctor and they are not deemed to be at high risk of developing an allergy, a small amount of peanut butter—a lick or smear here and there—can be introduced in their first year of life and onward.

Just a few weeks ago, Australian researchers also found that probiotic therapy can be very effective in treating peanut allergies. Look at us now, with such a wealth of cures and preventative measures all at once! Maybe all of our children won't be doomed to a joyless, peanut-butter-cup-less future after all.

As with dental surgery, open wounds, and other unpleasantries, it's really pretty simple when it comes down to it: go to a proper pediatric clinic and ask what's up, doc.

And get some Benadryl for your medicine cabinet, just in case.