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By Barbara Quinn, The Monterey County Herald (TNS)

I was surprised when my three-year old granddaughter and her mom (my daughter who lives several states away) suddenly appeared at my recent retirement party. No better surprise than that.

We sometimes get surprises in the world of nutrition, as well. Like the surprising estimate that the incidence of peanut allergy in Western countries has doubled in the past 10 years, according to a recent analysis of this topic in the journal, Allergy. Peanut allergy is also reported to be the leading cause of anaphylaxis (a sudden life threatening allergic reaction) and deaths due to food allergy. Pretty serious stuff.

Peanut allergy usually hits early in life and is seldom outgrown, say experts. No wonder, then, that most clinical guidelines recommend that infants at risk for allergies not be fed highly allergenic foods (such as peanuts). And they recommend that — as early as pregnancy — moms with a history of allergies avoid peanuts and other foods that may cause a problem.

Makes total sense. Except that these cautionary practices do not seem to have helped children avoid serious food allergies.

Then along comes a study that tried something different. Scientists in the United Kingdom proposed that introducing peanuts early in a child’s life (at 7 to 11 months of age) may actually protect a child from developing an allergy to peanuts.

How in the world did these scientists get the courage to do this study? It began with an observation that children in Israel — where peanut-containing foods are introduced to infants around 7 months of age — have one-tenth the risk for peanut allergy as Jewish children who live in the United Kingdom (where peanut products are not typically fed to infants during their first year of life).

In a study named Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP), scientists recruited infants with severe egg allergy or eczema (red, swollen itchy skin) or both. Two groups were studied: infants who tested positive for peanut allergy on a skin prick test and those who did not. Within these groups, half avoided peanut products until they were five years old; the other half were given small doses of a peanut protein product during the same time period.

At the end of five years, 13.7 percent of the group that avoided peanuts were allergic to peanuts while only 1.9 percent of the protein consumption group was allergic.

These surprising results highlight that we still don’t completely understand how food affects our immune function. Even more surprising was that those who avoided peanuts early in life had more peanut allergies than those who consumed them.

Precaution is warranted, however. This study was done under extremely controlled conditions and with medical supervision. Any child at risk for allergies should be followed closely by a skilled physician. We don’t want any surprises.

(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at bquinn@chomp.org .)

(c)2015 The Monterey County Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Daniella Segura via Flickr

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