An estimated 4 to 8% of people living in the EU are believed to suffer from food allergies, according to allergy organisations. Parents of newborns are advised to prolong breast-feeding, wean after 6 months, and avoid early exposure to potential food allergens to reduce their offspring’s risk of developing allergies. This is because the immature gut is thought to be permeable to food proteins, leading to an adverse immune response which could evolve into a food allergy. However, a new study from Canada suggests that this advice could be misplaced.
Researchers from the University of Manitoba analysed data from nearly 14,000 children born in 1995, finding that 592 (4%) had a food allergy. They then attempted to relate birth weight and gestational age (whether or not a baby was premature) to the incidence of food allergy. No associations were found. This suggests that premature babies are no more at risk of allergy than babies born at term.
The researchers argued that weaning policies that advocate the avoidance of potential food allergens, such as gluten, lactose, peanuts and shellfish, may not be necessary. Indeed the paper went as far as to argue for deliberate introduction of potential food allergens into the diet of young children in order to stimulate tolerance, a suggestion that will need careful consideration, and to be backed by additional research.
However, it was interesting that maternal history of food allergy and asthma was associated with the risk of food allergy in children. This has been confirmed by a number of other studies. It may be that weaning strategies need to be adapted depending upon familial history of food allergy.
For more information see
Liem AL et al (2007) The risk of developing food allergy in premature or low-birth-weight children. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Vol 119, issue 5, pg 1203-1209.
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