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Feeding babies peanuts early may prevent future allergy, study finds

The Government is reviewing its advice warning parents not to feed babies peanuts and eggs after a new study found that eating small amounts of the foods at an early age may ward off future allergies.

Scientists at Imperial College London found that children who ate peanuts between the ages of four and 11 months had a 70 per cent reduced risk of developing an allergy to the nuts compared with children who ate them for the first time when they were older.

Children who started eating egg between the ages of four and six months had a 40 per cent reduced risk in comparison.

Food allergies affect around one in 20 children in the UK, with peanut and egg intolerance the two most common types.

Current advice cautions parents against giving infants allergenic foods such as egg, peanut, fish and wheat, which can cause an malfunctioning immune system to over-react, triggering rashes, swelling, vomiting and wheezing.

The new research, which analysed the data from 146 studies involving more than 200,000 children, was commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency.

Professor Anthony Frew, an expert in allergy and respiratory medicine at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said the study showed that earlier introduction of allergen foods may be appropriate.

“Much anxiety and some harm was caused by the UK Government Committee on Toxicology’s 1998 advice on peanut avoidance in high-risk infants being extrapolated to the wider low-risk population,” he said.

“Midwives and mothers’ groups assumed that in view of the targeted advice, it might be a good idea for all parents to avoid introducing these foods regardless of their child’s risk of becoming allergic.

“We now know that the opposite was in fact true.”

The Imperial College scientists warned, however, that because their research was a review of previous studies they could not say how many of the babies who were given the allergenic food at an early suffered allergic reactions.

Dr Robert Boyle, who led the research, said parents should not give egg and peanut to babies already known to have a food allergy, or other allergic conditions such as eczema.

“If your child falls into these categories, talk to your GP before introducing these foods,” he said.

He also said whole nuts should not be given to babies or toddlers because of the risk of choking.

The team also analysed whether introducing peanut, egg, milk, fish or wheat into a baby’s diet earlier affected their risk of autoimmune diseases such as coeliac disease, and found there was no effect on risk.

The number of children diagnosed with food allergies is thought to be rising, according to the researchers, although they said this may be because doctors have become better at recognising allergies.

The Food Standards Agency said the Imperial scientists had produced a high-quality review.

“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,” said a spokesman.

But he added: “Families should continue to follow the Government’s current long-standing advice to exclusively breastfeed for around the first six months because of the health benefits to mothers and babies.”

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