A King’s College study reveals that exposure, not avoidance, is the reason that only a small portion of the Israeli population is allergic to peanuts.
Peanut allergies are one of the “Big Eight” food allergies – that is, one of the eight foods that account for 90% of all food allergies in the United States. These allergenic foods are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
Unlike many food allergies, peanut allergies are rarely outgrown and affect between .6 percent and 1.4 percent of Americans. It is considered one of the most severe food allergies. The number of peanut allergies in the US has approximately doubled since 2000, and peanut allergies are on the rise in most Western countries.
The rate of peanut allergies in Israel is about 10% of that in the US, and researchers the world over are looking to Israel for a key to preventing the dangerous condition.
Bamba is the Key
The rarity of peanut allergies in Israel is especially surprising considering the fact that it is usually recommended to delay exposure to highly allergenic foods, especially in young children. Yet in Israel, the most popular children’s snack is the peanut-based “Bamba.”
This fact caught the attention of researchers at Kings College in London, who decided to conduct a study in which they introduced peanut-based foods to infants – something religiously avoided in most Western countries.
The study, called LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy), was led by Prof. Gideon Lack and was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is considered a breakthrough study because it shows that consumption can actually be an effective strategy for the prevention of food allergies, a finding that contradicts previous public health recommendations.
The LEAP study enrolled 640 children, ages 4-11 months, who were considered at high-risk of developing peanut allergy due to pre-existing severe eczema and/or egg allergy. Half of the children were asked to eat peanut-containing foods three or more times a week, and the other half to avoid eating peanuts until the age of five.
The results were shocking. Less than 1 percent of children who consumed peanuts developed a peanut allergy by five years of age, as compared to an astounding 17.3 percent in the avoidance group who developed the allergy.
The findings indicate that early introduction to peanut-containing foods is safe and increases the possibility of tolerance. (Infants were not fed whole peanuts, which carry a risk of choking in young children.) Conversely, the deliberate avoidance of peanuts in the first year of life was determined to be a questionable strategy in allergy prevention.
“This is an important clinical development which contravenes previous guidelines,” Lack said in a statement. “Our study suggests that new guidelines may be needed to reduce the rate of peanut allergy in our children.”
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