Pregnant women who consume peanuts may not be increasing the risk of peanut allergies in their children at all, as was previously thought; they may, in fact, be decreasing that risk. A recent study published by JAMA Pediatrics in February showed that the children of women who consumed peanuts consistently throughout their pregnancy had a 31 percent reduced risk of developing a peanut allergy.
Peanut Allergies a Growing Concern
Across the U.S. and other developed nations, peanut, tree nut and other food allergies are becoming a growing concern for parents and health officials. Once quite rare, these allergies have been on the rise for the past half century, and rates have grown by over 50 percent since 1997. Peanuts in particular are a serious concern. Peanut allergies are one of the most common causes of food allergy anaphylaxis, and are also the allergy that children are most likely to carry into adulthood. Currently, about 1 in 100 Americans suffers from a peanut allergy.
A severe peanut allergy can have a profound impact on a child’s life. Some cases are so severe that airborne particles containing the peanut’s protein can trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction. To reduce the risk of exposure, many of these children must remain vigilant around not only food, but also playgrounds, airplanes and even birthday parties. Despite decades of research, no one cause of food allergies has been found, and no certain explanation for the rise of food allergies exists.
In an effort to clarify whether prenatal exposure to peanut allergens increases the risk of food allergies, study authors researched data from about 11,000 mothers and children, which followed them from birth to adolescence. Of the 8,205 children studied who were born from 1990 to 1994, researchers noted 308 food allergy cases, nearly half of which (140) were peanut and tree nut allergies. They found that women who reported eating peanuts or tree nuts very rarely were about three times as likely to have children with either a tree nut or peanut allergy as those who reported eating nuts more often. The researchers concluded that their findings supported the hypothesis held by some experts that early exposure to allergens actually lowers the risk of a child developing a food allergy.
These exciting findings contradict earlier studies and the long-standing advice for pregnant women to reduce exposure to peanuts and other allergens. For pregnant women today, these results are certainly confusing. The American Academy of Pediatrics advised back in 2000 that pregnant women should avoid peanuts altogether, a stance on food allergy prevention that was later reversed in 2008. Today, the official recommendation for women who do not have peanut allergies themselves is to consume nuts freely both during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
No study that looks at risk factors claims that its findings can prevent food allergies. Like autoimmune diseases and similar conditions, food allergies are likely caused by a number of factors, including genetics and infant exposure to certain foods. The mother’s prenatal diet is likely just one of many factors, and is in no way guaranteed to affect whether or not the child will develop a food allergy. Instead, study author Dr. Michael Young states that her findings “dispel earlier notions that maternal ingestion of nuts during pregnancy increased the risk of having a nut-allergic child.”
While the cause of food allergies remains elusive, mothers can at least take heart in these findings knowing that their ingestion of peanuts and other nuts during pregnancy was likely not a cause of their child’s food allergy.