Feeding babies with egg and peanut at a young age – rather than waiting until they are older – may prevent them developing an allergy to the foodstuffs, according to a major new study.
Reactions to peanut and egg are among the most common allergies suffered by children in Britain, causing many parents choose to wait until their offspring are closer to 12 months old before they are introduced into the diet.
One in 20 have food allergy
Around one in 20 children in the United Kingdom has an allergy to foods such nuts, egg, milk or wheat.
But research by scientists at Imperial College in London has found that giving infants peanut and egg from as young as four months of age can significantly reduce the risk of those children going on to develop an allergy.
The review of nearly 150 research papers on food allergy using data from more than 200,000 children found that babies who were given egg between four and six months of age had a 40 per cent reduced risk of egg allergy compared to children who were given the food later in life.
Children who ate peanut between the ages of four and 11 months had a 70 per cent reduced peanut allergy risk. This suggests that, based on 695,000 live births in England and Wales each year, nearly 17,000 fewer children would suffer an egg allergy per annum and 12,500 fewer would have a peanut allergy.
Safety not assessed
But the authors of the research cautioned that the findings could not yet be interpreted as giving the green light for parents to feed egg and peanut to their young children because the study had yet to examine the safety of such an approach. It is not yet known how many babies suffered allergic reactions as a result of early exposure to egg and peanut.
The scientists also reiterated existing advice not to give allergenic foods such as egg or peanut to a baby who already has a food allergy or an allergic condition such as eczema.
But the findings could have a significant impact on the advice given to parents about what to feed their infants and when.
Government watchdog the Food Standards Agency, which commissioned the study, said it would consider the findings as part of a review of feeding advice for parents, while underlining that its long-standing recommendation that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of age remained in place.
No benefit with other foods
The study is thought to be the first to provide a clear finding of a reduction in allergy risk by introducing the egg and peanut in the early months. By contrast, it did not find evidence of a reduction in allergy with early introduction of milk, fish (including shellfish), tree nuts such as almonds and wheat.
Dr Robert Boyle, who led the research, said: “This new analysis pools all existing data, and suggests introducing egg and peanut at an early age may prevent the development of egg and peanut allergy, the two most common childhood food allergies.
“Until now we have not been advising parents to give these foods to young babies, and have even advised parents to delay giving allergenic foods such as egg, peanut, fish and wheat to their infant.”
Allergies more common
Food allergies have become much more common the last 30 years, though debate continues on the cause of the trend. Studies have pointed to the importance of environmental factors while there is also evidence that doctors have also simply become better at recognising the symptoms.
The reactions of to allergenic foods include rashes, swelling, vomiting and wheezing, which in rare cases can develop into life-threatening conditions.
The researchers will now continue their work to assess the safety implications of introducing egg and peanut at an early age, though they pointed out that whole nuts of any form should not be given to young children.
In a statement, the Food Standards Agency said: “The Government is considering these important findings as part of its review of complementary feeding for infants to ensure its advice reflects the best available evidence.”