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An Easy Way to Prevent Childhood Allergies?

Maybe Bamba-loving Israeli parents were right all along

Marjorie Ingall
February 25, 2015

This week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that giving babies peanut products can prevent peanut allergy by as much as 81 percent.

One of the authors, Gideon Lack, is a professor of pediatric allergy at Kings College, London who’d already published a study in 2008 showing that the rate of peanut allergy in Israeli Jewish kids is only about a tenth that of British Jewish kids.

Why? Bamba.

Bamba is a hugely popular Israeli snack. Bamba is what would result if Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch and a puffed Cheeto had a baby. Bamba is like a sweet version of Veggie Booty, if Veggie Booty were eaten not only by kale-dusted American hippie children, but by everyone. Ninety percent of Israeli families buy it on a regular basis; a million bags are produced a day. In Israel, the very notion of banning peanuts in school lunches would be greeted with derisive laughter.

For the newly published study, Lack and the rest of the international team of researchers selected 530 four-to-eleven-month-old babies with eczema or an egg allergy (two indicators of a propensity toward peanut allergy). Half the babies were fed a small amount of Bamba or peanut butter three times a week until they turned five. The other half were given a peanut-free diet. The result: 1.9 percent of those who were fed peanuts wound up being allergic to them, compared with 13.7 percent of kids in the peanut-free group. The scientists also looked at 98 babies who tested weakly positive to peanuts before the study began, meaning that they were likely to become truly allergic. In that group, 10.6 percent of the peanut-eaters developed an allergy by age five, compared to 35.3 percent of the peanut-avoiders.

This is big news, but the medical establishment was already starting to figure that earlier approaches to preventing peanut allergy weren’t working. Back in 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that kids with a family history of allergies not eat peanuts at all until age three. In 2008, the AAP revised its stance, saying that there was no evidence this strategy prevented allergies. However, it didn’t actually suggest throwing handfuls of Bamba in the air and catching them in one’s mouth. Now that the number of Americans with peanut allergies has more than quadrupled in the last 20 years, an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine asks if we shouldn’t go that extra mile. “Given the results of this prospective, randomized trial, which clearly indicates that the early introduction of peanut dramatically decreases the risk of development of peanut allergy (approximately 70 to 80%), should the guidelines be changed?” The editorial goes on to recommend additional studies to find out exactly how much peanut is optimal to introduce, and whether the findings are applicable to other common allergies like tree nuts, milk and eggs, but provisionally suggests that “because the results of this trial are so compelling, and the problem of the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy so alarming, new guidelines should be forthcoming very soon.” It concludes that this study, “makes it clear that we can do something now to reverse the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy.” It does not say “AND EVERYBODY SHOULD EAT BAMBA BECAUSE IT IS DELICIOUS AND LIFESAVING.” But that’s implied, right?

Related: Going Nuts

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.