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Everything Parents Are Doing To Prevent Peanut Allergies In Their Children May Be Wrong

A study found that babies who were frequently given peanut butter before their first birthday had an approximately 70 to 80% less chance of developing a peanut allergy by age 5, contrary to popular wisdom.

Last updated on February 25, 2015, at 1:37 p.m. ET

Posted on February 24, 2015, at 3:29 p.m. ET

Thomas Perkins / Getty Images

For years, parents have been told if you don't want your child to become allergic to peanuts, you should completely avoid them.

Turns out, that advice could be completely wrong.

In fact, the opposite may be true, according to a groundbreaking new study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

"I think it is a very important advance," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told BuzzFeed News.

The Learning Early about Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study, conducted in the United Kingdom under the supervision of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, found that babies who were frequently given peanut butter before their first birthday had an approximately 70 to 80% less chance of developing a peanut allergy by age 5.

"Although other studies are urgently needed to address the many questions that remain, especially with respect to other foods, the LEAP study makes it clear that we can do something now to reverse the increasing prevalence of peanut allergy," Drs. Rebecca S. Gruchalla and Hugh A. Sampson said in an editorial about the study.

Peanut allergies have been exploding over the past decade, especially in the Western world. More than 2% of Americans in 2010 were allergic to peanuts, up from .4% in 1997. Peanut allergies have also become the leading cause of allergy-related death in the U.S.

In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents stop feeding their children peanuts and peanut products until the age of 3 as a way to prevent the allergy.

However, the leaders of the study noticed a curious pattern. In Israel, many children are fed a popular food called "Bamba," which is made from peanut butter-flavored puffed corn.

The doctors noted that children in Israel who had eaten peanut butter before their first birthday had dramatically lower rates of peanut allergy than children in London who had the same genetic background.

Working off this hypothesis, the leaders of the study began testing children between the ages of 4 months and 11 months. They divided the children into two groups, those who were considered high-risk for peanut allergy and those who were considered low-risk.

They then fed some of the children either Bamba or peanut butter until they turned 5. The results, the doctors said in the editorial, were "striking."

"Early consumption was effective not only in high-risk infants who showed no indication of peanut sensitivity at study entry (primary prevention) but also in infants who had slight peanut sensitivity (secondary prevention)," the doctors said.

Fauci said that he was not necessarily surprised by the results of the study, but said "the effect was much more impressive" than he thought it would be.

"It actually really made me very pleased, because the results were even more striking than I had hoped for," he said.

The doctors said that they are not yet sure if the guidelines should be changed, as questions remain unanswered. However, they said, the scientific community should make this a priority.

"These questions must be addressed, but we believe 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," they wrote.

Fauci said that although there still needs to be further research, that doesn't diminish the "extraordinary effect" that was observed in the study.

"This is certainly already highly significant for peanut allergies," he said.

Parents should not change their behavior because of the study without consulting with their doctor, Fauci said.

However, he said it could lead to a change in how doctors recommend peanut consumption for children.

He said stakeholders from the top medical institutes and associations in America will likely convene in the next couple of months to review the data, and consider a change.

"Stay tuned, there will likely will be some changes in recommendations," he said.