Back in 2000, life-threatening food allergies were a growing concern. When it came to protecting kids from them, the American
Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) didn’t have much hard evidence to go on, so it made an educated guess. It recommended that common allergy-causing foods shouldn’t be given
to children with siblings or parents with allergies to those foods until they reached a certain age: eggs at age two, peanuts at three, and so on.
It turns out, this was probably bad advice. Food allergies in children are up 50 per cent since 1997, and data collected since then suggests that delaying the introduction of certain foods promotes allergies. A 2008 study compared the rate of peanut allergies among Jewish Israeli children-most of whom started eating peanut products during their first year-with that among Jewish children living in Britain, whose parents were advised to wait. Despite having a similar genetic heritage, the Israeli tots had one-tenth the allergy rate of their U.K. counterparts.
The AAP has since reversed its position and-along with the Canadian Paediatric Society, which updated its recommendations in 2013-says there’s no reason not to feed potential allergens to young kids. The two organizations also say there is no advantage in avoiding these foods during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
For the seven per cent of Canadians who already have food allergies, there is no cure. Most children outgrow allergies to milk, eggs, soy and wheat, but allergies to nuts, fish and shellfish can last a lifetime.
However, a new experimental treatment is showing promise. Desensitization involves giving kids minuscule amounts of food they’re severely allergic to, sometimes using a powerful antihistamine to help control the effects. Slowly, over time, the patients are exposed to larger amounts of their allergens, until they can eat, for example, two peanuts or half an egg. (Do not try this at home.)
Should it progress beyond the trial stage, desensitization treatment might make life less frightening for parents of children with severe allergies. The hope is to train kids’
immune systems up to a level of tolerance where accidental exposure to certain foods no longer poses a lethal threat.