How to introduce potentially allergenic foods
Australian guidelines recommend introducing solid food to babies at around six months (although not before four months) and to introduce all sorts of foods from this age, ensuring that allergenic foods like peanuts or eggs are given before twelve months.
Once is not enough; foods must be given repeatedly to have an impact.
“It’s thought that the repetitive introduction makes the child’s body accustomed to the food, so that they don’t have an allergic reaction,” says Professor Soriano.
“There always will be a subset of the population that, no matter what you do, because of genetic factors or other risk factors, will get food allergies. This isn’t one hundred per cent fool proof, but it’s good advice,” she says.
Parents are recommended to introduce peanuts in paste form (whole peanuts are a choking hazard for babies) at least twice a week.
“It’s not known what happens if there’s a long break: I would just recommend parents introduce it by adding it into other foods like smoothies, yoghurt or other foods so they can include them more regularly,” says Professor Soriano.
As for those who are nervous about the process, Professor Soriano stresses for most parents, it’s important to remember the big picture.
“It’s a normal, natural thing for an infant to eat food. For parents who have concerns about it, there are methods to do it slowly and more cautiously,” she says, noting that the ASCIA website offers this type of guidance for parents.
The mystery of food allergies
In many ways, our understanding of how and why food allergies occur is still in its infancy.
“It’s thought that if you have an egg allergy when you are little you are more likely to have other allergies. But there are so many variations; it’s quite a complex linkage,” Professor Soriano says.
Scientists believe there is a window in the child’s life when their body is happy to receive new foods and accept new food as safe.
“We believe if infants are introduced to these foods in that window they potentially maintain tolerance to them."
How the data will help
Food allergies affect up to one in ten Australian children, so researchers are interested to see if a change in guidelines helps the overall prevalence of peanut allergies in Australia’s children.
While the study found the large shift towards earlier peanut introduction was “striking”, it’s too early to yet know what impact this will have at a population level.
Researchers’ next step will be to look at what impact the new guidelines have had on the population in Melbourne. They are currently conducting a study asking parents of young children to participate and provide information about their children’s allergy status and risk factors and timing of introducing allergenic foods.
“When you get big enough numbers you can look at the trends to see if there’s any sort of association between the two factors. We know there is definitely a link at a controlled-trial level that introducing both egg and peanut earlier has been shown to reduce egg or peanut allergy. We now want to see how that is affecting the general population in a less controlled environment,” Professor Soriano says.
While the data, which will be available in early 2020, will tell the full story, the hope is that results will show fewer children are being impacted by peanut or egg allergies.
“Our ultimate goal is to prevent food allergies so children don’t have to live with them…these are allergies that don’t usually go away, so if we can prevent it when they are little they don’t need to go through those difficulties,” Professor Soriano says.