The great majority of kids never get a food allergy and can enjoy the full spectrum of nutritious foods. Nevertheless, food allergies can be serious problems for many kids (and adults). It’s likely that allergies in babies are related, as we’ve seen, to the tendencies to have allergies in the family history. Allergies related to cow’s milk protein are the most common in babies, followed by soy protein. Babies might be exposed to some form of these in an infant formula. Even exclusively breastfed babies can sometimes develop food allergies. Cow’s milk protein in the mother’s diet is the most likely culprit for an allergic reaction through the breast milk, followed by peanuts, soy, or egg.
Although a child can develop an allergy to almost any food, well over 90 percent of food allergies in children are caused by one of only six foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, and tree nuts. The symptoms of food allergies in kids may be minor, such as increased fussiness, a little blood in the stool, a minor rash, runny nose, or itchy eyes. Some allergic reactions to food are severe, including swelling and difficulty with breathing. Thankfully, most babies can outgrow their food allergies. About 85 percent of milk allergies are outgrown by age three. Outgrowing soy and egg allergies is very common. Even 20 percent of children with peanut allergies, once thought to be lifelong afflictions, may outgrow them, but they should be retested regularly under a doctor’s care.
Nevertheless, food allergies appear to be getting more common. If you think you’re hearing more about peanut allergies now than when you were a child, you’re right! Researchers at Mt. Sinai Medical Center estimate that peanut allergies in the United States doubled in just five years, between 1997 and 2002. Now, a little over 1 percent of Americans are allergic to peanuts. What caused this rapid rise? Perhaps it is partly due to the increased use of antibiotics and our more antiseptic environments—living more removed from nature. Maybe it is the increase in chemicals and artificial ingredients in our foods. Or the decrease in fresh fruits and vegetables. Or perhaps the introduction of genetically modified soy and other foods in the late 1990s contributed to this rise (soy and peanuts are closely related). Whatever the cause, I suspect that organic agriculture and organic foods could be part of the solution.
Preventing Food Allergies
Breastfeeding might keep some babies from getting food allergies. I also recommend you avoid directly feeding babies common allergenic foods while their stomachs are immature (especially in the first year) or inflamed (as from antibiotics, illnesses, or chemical irritants). For families with a strong history of food allergies (two or more parents or siblings with any food allergies, or one with severe food allergies), I suggest no milk, soy, or wheat for the first year; no eggs for two years; and no peanuts, tree nuts, or fish for three years.
For all kids, I prefer organic foods for the first three years, without chemical additives. There is also some evidence that probiotics (beneficial bacteria), either given directly to babies or to their pregnant and nursing moms, may help prevent allergic.