Giving foods that contain peanuts to infants under age 1 who are at risk of peanut allergies? It may sound counterintuitive, even dangerous. But some medical experts now recommend it.

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A consensus statement issued by 10 leading medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, endorses peanut exposure for infants at high risk of peanut allergy. The statement release follows on the heels of a landmark study on infant peanut allergies published in 2015. Known as Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP), the study found infants who were fed peanut protein before age 1 were much less likely to develop peanut allergies than babies who weren’t.

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Among the infants who researchers assigned at random to eat peanut protein from 4 to 11 months of age, only 1.9 percent developed a peanut allergy by age 5. Among the babies that didn’t receive peanut protein, 13.7 percent had a full-blown peanut allergy by 5. (The study excluded infants who already had a peanut allergy and fed the babies peanut protein rather than whole peanuts, which could cause them to choke.)

The consensus statement, which overturns the conventional thinking, declared that early exposure to peanut products slashes the risk of a peanut allergy by 80 percent.

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How did the researchers get the idea of testing very young, high-risk infants? Chana Sacks, MD, a blogger for the New England Journal of Medicine, where the LEAP study was published, explained that a group of investigators had made an important discovery while trying to figure out the mystery of increasing peanut allergies. They learned that in the United Kingdom, Jewish children were 10 times as likely to develop a peanut allergy as Israeli children of similar ancestry. Digging further, the researchers found out that in Israel, babies usually get peanut protein in their diet by 7 months of age; in the U.K., peanut protein is rarely introduced before age 1. “This led to the hypothesis that early exposure to peanuts might be protective against peanut allergy,” Sacks concluded.

At a time in when life-threatening peanut allergies are on the rise, Sacks added in her blog that the study offered hope “that peanut butter might one day be restored to its symbolic place, representing an uncomplicated joy of childhood.”

But talk with your doctor before you feed your infant peanut protein, which, in the study, was given to infants in the form of smooth peanut butter, peanut soup and ground peanuts added to other foods.

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If your infant is at high risk for peanut allergies, Gruchalla suggests consulting with an allergist as well.

And if your child has eczema or an egg allergy, consult with an allergist or your pediatrician before feeding him peanuts products, the study’s lead author, Gideon Lack, MD, advised in a news release. 

Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.