Peanut allergy has always been on my radar since I was a child myself—but looking around anecdotally over the past few decades, the problem definitely seems to have been exacerbated.
Peanut allergy studies
Turns out my instinct was right. So why is the West facing what scientists are calling the ‘second wave of the allergy epidemic’, with experts even feeling compelled to release new and extensive infant feeding guidelines in the US, UK, and Australia recommending early peanut introduction to prevent the development of the allergy?
Today, 3% of American children are allergic to peanuts—but this certainly wasn’t always the case. There’s a strong environmental influence on allergy risk: for example, one study found that Jewish children living in the UK who’d not eaten peanuts during their first year of life faced a risk of peanut allergy 10 times greater than their peers in Israel who were introduced to peanuts during the same period of life. This is crucially important, because peanut allergy can often be far from a relatively minor childhood irritation which clears itself up, but rather turn into a debilitating problem cropping up at seemingly arbitrary moments—and posing a real threat to life. Most other food allergies are not like this: they generally ‘work themselves out’ by adulthood.
When should I be introducing my baby to peanuts?
The emphasis on introducing peanuts into the diet early in infancy represents a significant shift from tradition, which for decades had it that peanuts shouldn’t be given to babies until they were quite a bit older. Peanuts can also be a choking hazard, of course, which served to further disincentivise parents from feeding them to their babies.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, testing babies for peanut allergy depends on which of three groups they fall into:
- babies with severe eczema (meaning eczema that’s persistent or recurrent and requires frequent application prescription cream) or egg allergy
- babies with mild to moderate eczema
- babies with neither eczema nor food allergies.
The AAP guidelines recommend testing for peanut allergy in the first group. This generally entails a skin prick, although a blood test may also be conducted. If the test confirms your baby has a peanut allergy, you should see a doctor to discuss how to introduce peanut products into your baby’s diet to overcome the allergy as soon as possible. This approach is suitable for most infants, but should always be carried out with guidance from a professional. Furthermore, the first time you do give your child a peanut product as part of this approach should be somewhere with immediate medical assistance on standby in the case of a severe allergic reaction. Get this testing done as early as you can in your child’s life: it’s recommended that peanut products should be introduced between four and six months, once your baby has tried other foods and shown they’re ready for solids.
Babies in the second group above don’t need testing, although it’s never a bad idea to speak to your doctor about your child’s individual predisposition—they might think in your baby’s specific case that testing would still be worthwhile for whatever reason. Babies in this category should first try peanut products at six months, again once they can handle solids.
Finally, the AAP recommends that parents of babies with neither eczema nor food allergies can introduce peanut products into their diet ‘freely’. For these infants, early introduction of peanut products is less of a priority. And remember, we’re saying peanut products because whole peanuts or even chunks thereof represent a choking hazard. Peanut butter can be hard for babies to manage, so your best course of action is to either put a little bit on a spoon for them to lick off or mix it into a purée.