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For the first time, food products can say they prevent allergies

Baby foods and foods for young children may now carry the claim that they can prevent peanut allergies.
/ Source: NBC News

Baby foods and foods for young children may now claim — for the first time — that they can prevent peanut allergies.

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday the science backs up the idea of giving a little ground-up peanut to babies and young kids to prevent allergies. So a company that wants to label its food products may do so, the FDA said.

“This is the first time the FDA has recognized a qualified health claim to prevent a food allergy,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a blog post.

New guidelines released in January say that even babies with the highest risk of having a peanut allergy should be given small doses of the nut because it might prevent the allergy from ever developing.

The new guidelines from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and other groups are based on findings that giving peanut to kids early enough in life can train their immune systems so they don’t overreact and cause a dangerous allergic reaction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the approach, also.

About 5 percent of U.S. children have food allergies, according to the NIAID. Peanut allergies are the most common, affecting about 2 percent of children. Gottlieb said it can be confusing and frightening for parents who worry about food allergies.

“Perhaps one of the most challenging decisions for parents of my generation is when and how to introduce foods that pose a potential for a significant allergic reaction,” he wrote.

“Peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies. It’s also one of the most dangerous. Peanut allergy is the leading cause of death related to food-induced anaphylaxis in the United States,” Gottlieb added.

Avoiding peanuts may not be best

Foods already must carry a label if they contain any foods that most commonly cause allergies, including peanuts, tree nuts and dairy. Gottlieb noted that food allergies have been on the increase in recent years.

“You would be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t know a child who suffers from a serious peanut allergy,” he wrote.

“Even if our own children don’t have a peanut allergy, most of us have friends or relatives whose children do. That’s not surprising, given that the prevalence of peanut allergy has more than doubled in children from 1997 to 2008 alone.”

He said “well-intended” advice to keep peanuts away from young children may not actually be the best way to prevent allergies.

“A recent landmark clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health found that introducing foods containing smooth peanut butter to babies as early as 4 months of age who are at high risk of developing a peanut allergy — due to severe eczema or egg allergy or both — reduces their risk of developing peanut allergy later in childhood by about 80 percent,” Gottlieb said.

“Along with the information that you currently see on food labels, which disclose when a food contains peanuts or peanut residue, the new advice about the early introduction to peanuts and reduced risk of developing peanut allergy will soon be found on the labels of some foods containing ground peanuts that are suitable for infant consumption.”

Babies and toddlers can choke on whole peanuts and should never eat them.

The FDA said the new claim will read:

“For most infants with severe eczema and/or egg allergy who are already eating solid foods, introducing foods containing ground peanuts between 4 and 10 months of age and continuing consumption may reduce the risk of developing peanut allergy by 5 years of age. FDA has determined, however, that the evidence supporting this claim is limited to one study.

"If your infant has severe eczema and/or egg allergy, check with your infant’s healthcare provider before feeding foods containing ground peanuts.”

A company called Assured Bites says it will soon put the label on its products designed to safely introduce peanut to babies. The FDA said it made its decision after Assured Bites petitioned for the label.