Let’s start with something you may already know — peanuts aren’t nuts at all, they are a legumes, like peas and beans, consisting of edible seeds or fruits contained within a pod. Unlike common nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, peanuts grow underground.
However, there’s no denying their nutritional benefits. Peanuts contain many essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, dietary fiber and various other chemicals that are being studied for their potential health benefits.
But for some children, peanuts are a nightmare. Peanut allergy can cause severe and even fatal reactions, and the incidence is growing at an alarming rate. Approximately 100,000 new cases occur annually now in just the U.S. alone. That translates to 1 out of every 50 children in primary school!
In an effort to reduce this upsurge, experts have been urging parents to avoid exposing their children to peanuts, as well as other common allergens such as egg and dairy products, during the first years of life.
But it looks like the experts were wrong.
Recent clinical studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine have found that early exposure to peanuts reduces the risk of peanut allergy. This finding was first described in children who were considered at high risk for peanut allergy because of prior evidence of tendency to allergy (for example, if they have eczema, a skin disease often associated with allergy, or if they are already allergic to eggs). Now there is evidence that the same holds true for the general population of children.
In this latest study, children six months old or younger were randomized either to exposure to peanuts and other potential food allergens or to restriction to breast feeding. Those in the breast feeding only group had a subsequent incidence of peanut allergy nearly three times that of those who were exposed to peanuts early on, approximately 7 percent versus 2.5 percent.
We should not be terribly surprised by these results. Early exposure likely educates the child’s immune system to accept and tolerate peanuts, greatly lessening the risk of a subsequent reaction. This process is likely similar to that used by allergists all the time to reduce a patient’s sensitivity to a particular allergen through gradually increasing doses of the allergen given through regular injections.
So the bottom line is this: peanuts are a healthy addition to almost any diet, and every indication is that early introduction of peanuts to infants is safe and may be protective against future allergies for many years.