The steep rise in peanut allergies in recent years may have been caused by parents deciding not to feed their children peanuts, according to a new study that the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says has "the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention," according to the AP. Researchers took hundreds of infants between 4 and 11 months old considered at high risk of developing peanut allergy and split them into two groups, with one group avoiding peanuts entirely and the other group eating peanut products three times a week. By the time they were 5 years old, less than 1% of the peanut-eating group had developed a peanut allergy, compared to 17.3% of the peanut-avoiding group, King's College London says in a press release.
But while experts say the results—which they categorize as "without precedent"—are a major breakthrough, they warn parents that the children in the study were skin-tested first to make sure they didn't have a life-threatening reaction to the peanuts. They also stress that peanuts are a choking hazard, so infants should have products like peanut butter instead, the AP reports. But even among infants who reacted to peanuts on the skin test, researchers found that only 11% of peanut eaters developed the allergy, compared to 35% of those who avoided peanuts. Despite the promising results, it may be hard to change the habits of parents who have the "highest fear of introducing peanuts," a Northwestern University professor of pediatrics tells the New York Times. (An earlier study linked rising allergy rates to what we do to peanuts.)