As a parent, you should always take allergens seriously, because there can be serious consequences to avoiding them. Blogs, magazine articles and an array of experts, from new-age gurus to medical professionals, have plenty of advice for parents on what to feed and not feed their children.
In the past, the prevailing advice was to keep children away from peanuts and peanut products until around age 3. Recently, though, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did a 180 and concluded parents should feed peanuts to their children from an early age as a form of allergen prevention.
To be or “nut” to be concerned? Did parents who were following the original guidelines put their kids at risk? Is it OK to feed your kid nuts at a younger age? Parents are following the advice science and medical professionals give them as it emerges. So, all this back-and-forth may make you feel nuts, but feeding your kids nuts doesn’t make you one.
But Wait, There's More to Be Nuts Over
The occurrence of peanut allergies has grown from 0.4 percent as of 1997 to more than 1 percent in 2008. It may not sound like much, but this rampancy of peanut allergies has at least tripled in the last 20 years, and is the leading cause of food-related death and anaphylaxis in the country.
As it turns out, avoiding an allergic reaction by not exposing your child to that potential allergen creates major issues and a good chance they’ll end up with that allergy anyway. Great.
Some of the most important evidence has come from a 2015 study showing early exposure to nuts is vital to allergen prevention. In a clinical trial involving 640 infants — aged 4 to 11 months old — NIH researchers discovered early peanut exposure was linked with an 81 percent decrease in peanut allergen onset in high-risk infants.
Health Nuts Rejoice: Experts Are Composing an Addendum
With these findings, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) sponsored a panel of experts to issue updates to clinical guidelines. These will be an addendum to the Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States (2010) and will also be published within six science journals. Though the experts were not eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while composing this addendum, here’s an idea of what parents may expect in the updates:
- Infants who already have a severe allergy and are thus determined to be at high risk for peanut allergies should be introduced to foods containing peanuts from the early age range of 4 to 6 months. Consult a health care professional.
- Infants who have moderate or mild eczema, which has been linked to food allergies, should be introduced to peanut-containing foods at around 6 months.
- Infants who don’t have eczema or a food allergy should be freely introduced to foods containing peanuts.
According to the NIAID, no matter what category your infant fits into, start them on solid foods before moving on to foods that contain peanuts. When introduced to peanut products, infants and older children may try a taste of peanut butter, but keep in mind that solid nuts are also OK to try once the child has been introduced to solid food. For example, one serving of unsalted cashews contains 29 percent of the recommended daily amount of magnesium, and will help your child with nutrient intake while building strong bones.
Introduce solid foods and possible allergens slowly. For those with a family history of celiac disease, dry cereal makes for great early finger food, after consulting with your pediatric doctor. Steamed and pureed fish — such as salmon, mixed with avocado and a little breast milk and frozen into bite-sized cubes — is a way to introduce seafood and meat. Consult with a health care professional about introducing solid foods and potential allergens into your child’s diet. Exposure Is Key to Allergy Prevention
All this goes to show that early exposure is effective and critical for allergy prevention, but this must occur beyond peanut-containing foods. Exposure to possible allergens at a very young age is important to build a strong immune system that tolerates what humans put it through on a daily basis. Grownups eat weird stuff, too.
When the immune system detects a potentially toxic pathogen, it freaks out. Think Inside Out, but for the immune system, not emotions. That’s an allergic reaction, and sometimes the immune system goes overboard with its counterattack, aka anaphylaxis. Early exposure is a natural way of training the immune system to detect friend vs. foe.
Exposure to dust mites, pets, peanuts, gluten and dairy, for example, are a critical part of the development process, so kids don’t develop allergies down the road. Exposure to yellow dye No. 7 is as important now as coaching your child on the birds, the bees and love potion No. 9 at puberty.