Food allergy experts at UNL are among scientists around the world hailing a new landmark study on peanut allergies.
Unveiled to worldwide fanfare last week, the British study found that allergy-prone babies who were regularly fed peanuts were about 80 percent less likely to develop a peanut allergy by their fifth birthday.
Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said it is one of the most significant studies on allergies in the last 10 to 15 years.
In addition to changing parenting techniques, it may well result the development of new peanut-based food products for babies.
UNL’s food allergy program advises food-processing companies on how to address issues related to allergies.
Joseph Baumert, a food science assistant professor and co-director of the food allergy program, and Jamie Kabourek, a dietitian and the program’s resource manager, were among the scientists present when the study’s findings were revealed at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology last week in Houston. The study, led by Dr. Gideon Lack of King’s College London, was simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Peanut allergies have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. The UNL experts said their incidence has doubled every 10 years since 1990.
About 10 years ago, scientists had noticed that peanut allergies occurred with significantly less frequency in Israel, where parents often feed their babies a peanut-puff snack food called Bamba.
“It’s very delicious,” said Taylor, who said a friend sent him some samples of the snack. He described them being like Cheetos, only peanut-flavored. “Babies gum it to death, it’s used like an inexpensive teething biscuit.”
Pediatric practice in Great Britain and the U.S. has been to advise parents to avoid feeding peanuts to children under 3 who are at risk of developing a peanut allergy, the UNL scientists said. The advice was not based on any studies, but seemed like an appropriate response to child who might become allergic. In addition, the scientists said, young children in the U.S. and Great Britain may be less likely to eat peanuts because mothers are breast-feeding longer and because peanuts and peanut butter can pose choking hazards.
Many schools and youth organizations no longer permit meals or snacks containing peanuts because of the prevalence and severity of peanut allergies, the UNL experts also noted.
In the study, 640 infants deemed at high risk for development of peanut allergy because they had eczema or egg allergy were randomly assigned to be fed about four heaping teaspoons of peanuts a week or to avoid peanuts.
In the group of infants with no initial reaction to peanuts, less than 2 percent of those exposed to peanuts developed an allergy by age 5. In comparison, 3.7 percent of the group that avoided peanuts became allergic by age five. Of study participants who demonstrated slight sensitivity to peanuts as infants, about 11 percent who were exposed to peanuts developed an allergy by age 5, while more than 35 percent of those who avoided peanuts became allergic.
Kabourek said she’s been monitoring social media discussion of the study and has been surprised by some of the negative reaction to the study.
“Some parents are very upset. They feel as if they’re being asked to poison their babies,” she said.
Indeed, the study offers no benefit to children who have already developed peanut allergy, a lifelong condition.
The UNL scientists cautioned the parents should consult with their doctors before beginning to feed peanut-containing foods to an allergy-prone child. It could be risky if the child already is allergic to peanuts. Pediatricians should determine if the baby might happen to already be sensitized to peanuts.
Though some food companies already are beginning to discuss production of peanut-containing foods for young children, they must continue with allergy-safe food-production practices. It likely will be generations before the study’s recommendations will reduce the proportion of allergy sufferers in the population.
“The food industry wants to introduce more food products, but they still need to avoid cross-contact and to use appropriate labeling,” Baumert said. “If they have a peanut-containing product, they still need to handle it correctly, segregate it and apply other good management practices. That can become more complex if they’re rolling out more products.”