Evidence in favor of feeding infants peanuts and eggs continues to accumulate. The latest study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, supports the idea that small, early doses of common food triggers can protect kids from developing allergies later on.
If this sounds counterintuitive, think about what allergies are: an overreaction by the immune system to an ordinarily harmless trigger. On their own, pollen, shellfish, and peanuts are completely harmless to the human body. But once the body decides that shrimp cocktail or a Snickers bar is a threat, they may as well be poison. Allergies can be treated; they can’t be cured. So ideally, we’d be able to prevent them from arising in the first place.
To do that, we’d need to toughen up our immune systems by telling them that common triggers are not going to hurt us. And to do that, scientists say, we need exposure to these triggers in small doses at a young age. This practice seems to work for dog allergies—but does it work for deadlier food allergies?
Scientists have conducted lots and lots of experiments to find out. That’s how science works: One study alone is not enough to confirm a hypothesis. You need a bunch of them, all supporting each other’s results.
So a team of researchers decided to take a look at these food allergen studies and assess whether or not they agreed with one another. They found more than 200 journal articles describing 146 experiments conducted between 1946 and 2016 on early introduction of common food triggers, including peanuts, eggs, gluten, and fish.
Analysis of these studies found that they did indeed support the concept of introducing certain foods early on. The evidence was strongest in favor of peanuts and eggs and limited on fish. The data also suggested that giving healthy young kids small doses of gluten was safe and would not lead to celiac disease down the road.
These findings are not earth-shattering, but they are encouraging, especially since pediatricians in several countries have already begun to encourage parents to give eggs and peanuts to their babies. This is a reversal of earlier recommendations, which warned against any exposure to potential allergens. The most recent infant feeding guidelines from the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases both say that small doses of allergens are a safe and effective way to help keep kids allergy-free.
Keep in mind that these latest recommendations are not the final word. The studies on which they’re based are not perfect. The ideal scientific experiment is “blind”—that is, participants don’t know if they’re in the experimental or control group. But it’s pretty hard to blind an experiment that involves people feeding their children. The participants will be very aware of what their kids are eating (as they should be), which could affect both their behavior and the study’s eventual outcome. To be completely certain, researchers say, we need, well, more research.
Also (and we probably don’t have to tell you this, but just in case): Talk to your pediatrician before making any decisions about your kids and allergy triggers.
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