Introducing peanut food products to the diets of four- to six-month-old babies could lower their risk of an allergy to peanuts by as much as 77 per cent, researchers in Britain said.
In a fresh analysis of data from a study published in December 2022, researchers identified a “window of opportunity” to feed smooth peanut butter – products without whole or broken nuts – to prevent allergies from developing.
Findings from the analysis, led by Professor Graham Roberts from the University of Southampton, recommended that babies be fed suitable peanut products when they are developmentally ready to start solids, from around four months old, while continuing to be breastfed until they are at least six months old.
For babies with eczema, four months after birth is recommended to begin introducing peanut products, an age earlier than conventional health guidance to start solids.
Singapore’s Health Promotion Board recommends the six-month mark to begin complementary feeding of food items and solids.
But it also advises parents to look out for signs of readiness in their child, in conjunction with medical advice.
Some signs include when babies are able to sit up against the back of a chair while keeping their heads held upright; when babies show interest by fixating attention or reaching out towards solid food; or when they are able to swallow, chew and not spit food out.
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has similar recommendations.
“Over several decades, the deliberate avoidance of peanut has understandably led to parental fear of early introduction,” Prof Roberts, an allergy expert and lead author of the study, told the media last Friday.
“This latest evidence shows that applying simple, low-cost, safe interventions to the whole population could be an effective preventive public health strategy that would deliver vast benefits for future generations.”
He acknowledged that babies could have adverse reactions to peanuts but they were minor, with serious reactions less commonly observed.
“In our experience, babies usually only have minor reactions to peanut. This might be some swelling or an itchy rash,” he told the Southampton Biomedical Research Centre.
“These tend to get better quickly, some antihistamine may make the child more comfortable. A more serious reaction would involve breathing problems but this is extremely rare in babies.”
The data samples involved 640 babies considered at high risk of developing peanut allergy from the Evelina London Children’s Hospital as well as 1,303 exclusively breastfed children recruited from the general population of England and Wales.
One of the authors of the original study, Dr Gideon Lack of King’s College London, said delaying feeding babies peanut products led to diminished allergy reduction.
Waiting until infants were 12 months of age to introduce peanut products would lead to only a 33 per cent reduction.
He added: “The benefits of introducing peanut products into babies’ diets decrease as they get older. This reflects the experience in Israel, a culture in which peanut products are commonly introduced early into the infant diet and peanut allergy is rare.”
The prevalence of peanut allergy is relatively low in Asian countries. For instance, a 2020 study in the Asia Pacific Allergy journal cited a rate of around 0.1 per cent to 0.3 per cent in children aged one to four in Singapore.
In comparison, around 2 per cent of children in Britain are affected by peanut allergy, a rate that has been rising, according to the NHS.
Past research has shown similar benefits with infants who get a taste of eggs when they are as young as four months old, with results showing they may have a lower risk of developing allergies to related food items than babies who try them later.
With eggs, giving babies that first spoonful between four and six months after their birth was associated with 46 per cent lower odds of egg allergies than waiting to introduce this food later.