Are “nut-free” schools putting kids at risk?

I don’t know about you, but back when I was in a class of 42 kids, not a single one of us had any food allergies. And yet now, they’re everywhere. So if you’re wondering what’s really going on here, you’re in very good company.

I have my own conspiracy theories about what’s behind the boom in childhood allergies — like too many vaccines, too many chemical toxins in cord blood, and too clean of an environment.

Yes, I said too clean. Studies have shown that kids who grow up on farms, surrounded by animals and playing in the dirt, have far fewer allergies in general than those children kept in more sterile environments.

And this latest study speaks to that problem, albeit in a slightly different way. If nothing else, it’s another example of how our efforts to protect our children might be backfiring on us.

This British study recently appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. And its results suggest that more exposure — not less — is what very young children need in order to build up tolerance to common food allergens.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls for exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life, partly as an allergy-preventive measure. And many parents actively avoid introducing “allergenic” foods — like nuts, eggs, dairy, and fish — to their older infants.

In fact, according to recent infant feeding surveys in the UK, nearly half of all mothers follow this strategy in an effort to protect their children from allergies. But is it really helping?

To get to the bottom of this question, researchers enrolled around 1,300 infants for their study — then randomly separated them into two groups.

One followed the standard recommendation to breastfeed exclusively for approximately six months. But mothers in the other group were told to introduce all six of the major “allergenic” foods — in this case, fish, eggs, milk, wheat, sesame, and peanuts — starting at just three months of age.

Both groups, were also encouraged to continue extended breastfeeding — up to two years and beyond — well after solid foods were introduced. Nearly all the babies were still breastfed at six months, and more than half by the end of the first year.

Results showed that rates of allergy development to one (or more) of the six foods were significantly lower in the early introduction. In fact, prevalence of any food allergy was lower with early exposure — by a good five percent, overall.

And it doesn’t take much to produce this impressive effect. According to this study, it’s possible to prevent egg and peanut allergies with just one small hard-boiled egg or one-and-a-half teaspoons of peanut butter per week.

And this isn’t the first study to tout the allergy-preventing benefits of early exposure to potential allergens. Last year’s Learning Early about Peanut Allergy (LEAP) trial — which also appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine — showed that, for high-risk babies with severe eczema and/or egg allergy, early exposure to peanuts could cut the risk of peanut allergy by a whopping 80 percent.

This is why the growing trend of “nut-free” schools and playgrounds drives me, well… nuts. Sure, we want to protect kids who already have life-threatening allergies. But if we’re raising the risk of future allergies among every other child in the process, is this really the best strategy to use?   

You know my opinion. (In fact, I wrote about this topic in my book The Allergy and Asthma Cure, over ten years ago.)

Insanity has prevailed so far. And it’s come at a potentially very high cost. I can only hope that parents, doctors, and school officials stop and listen to reason soon.