Introducing allergenic foods to babies. Should you do it, how do you do it, and what are the benefits and risks? Here’s what you should know about having a food allergy and introducing some of the most common allergenic foods to babies, including what this means for kids on a plant-based diet.
Several of the top 8 allergy foods are animal products, so what does that mean when you’re raising a plant-based family?
If your kids are being raised on a predominantly plant-based diet, presumably this means you’ve made the decision not to regularly incorporate meat, fish, dairy, and eggs into their diet.
However, you might be wondering if it’s a good idea to at least expose your children to some of these foods early on to reduce their risk for developing severe allergies to them later in life — plant-based or not.
Here’s what the research says about if, when, and how to introduce allergenic foods, and some of our thoughts on the topic.
What Is a Food Allergy?
Food allergies are an immune response in which the body attacks a food protein by mistake, thinking it’s a foreign invader or threat.
Allergies can cause symptoms like swelling around the mouth, face, or throat, itchiness, difficulty breathing, and gastrointestinal effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe cases, food allergies can be life-threatening.
A food allergy is different from a food intolerance, in that the latter does not cause an immune reaction in the body and isn’t life-threatening.
For instance, a child with a severe milk allergy cannot consume milk or milk-containing products, whereas a child with lactose intolerance could presumably have small amounts of milk depending on how much digestive upset it caused.
Risk Factors for Food Allergies
An estimated 4-6% of children and 4% of adults suffer from food allergies. Such allergies affect people uniquely, meaning that one child may have a severe reaction to an allergen while another child is only mildly reactive to it.
Your child may be at an increased risk for developing food allergies if you have a strong family history of them. If your child has an egg allergy, she may also be at an increased risk for developing other food allergies.
Some research also suggests that kids with family members who have a history of sensitive conditions like eczema, asthma, or allergic rhinitis may also have a higher risk for food allergies.
Infants who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life have a lower risk for sensitive conditions like eczema, and likely other immune response conditions like food allergies.
Some children will outgrow food allergies and sensitivities by the time they turn five years old, but not all. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish tend to last longer – often for life.
If you’re concerned about your child’s risk for food allergies, it’s best to discuss this with your pediatrician. They will also be able to refer you to an allergy specialist if needed, and provide guidance around whether allergy testing is appropriate or necessary.
What Are the Most Common Food Allergies?
Most of us are familiar with peanut and tree nut allergies, but these aren’t the only ones.
Below are the top 8 most common allergenic foods:
- Tree nuts
The above 8 foods account for approximately 90% of all food allergies, while the other 10% are other foods including emerging allergenic foods like sesame seeds and mustard seeds.
How to Introduce Allergy Foods to Babies
Old recommendations were to keep your children away from common food allergens until they were at least 1-3 years of age.
Specifically, it was to wait to introduce cow’s milk until 1 year, eggs until 2 years, and nuts and fish until 3 years.
The thinking behind this was that a child’s immune system is going through some massive development during this time, and to wait until it was stronger to introduce potentially reactive foods. Basically, delaying introduction was thought to be protective.
These recommendations have since changed, and continue to be updated based on emerging science.
In fact, the general consensus today is that waiting to introduce allergenic foods to kids until they’re older can actually increase their risk of developing food allergies.
Current recommendations indicate that introducing common food allergens to children between 4-6 months old is a good idea.
These foods can be incorporated with other first foods for babies, as long as they are age appropriate in terms of texture and consistency.
New recommendations for introducing peanuts are largely based on the results from the The Learning Early About Peanut (LEAP) study, conducted among infants in the UK, which found that earlier introduction was beneficial for preventing peanut allergies.
Other research reports similar findings. One 2018 study on the topic of peanut allergies concluded that early introduction to peanuts actually lowers peanut allergy risk in high-risk infants from 17.2% to 3.2% at 5 years.
To introduce peanuts to your child, Massachusetts General Hospital recommends giving your baby a first taste, waiting 10 minutes for a reaction, and repeating with a second taste.
After that, let your baby finish the peanut butter serving at a normal speed. Watch for any reactions over a period of around two hours, as this is the window of time in which most adverse food reactions will occur.
From there, expose your baby to at least 2 teaspoons of peanut butter three times per week.
In 2017, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease introduced a guideline for introducing peanuts which is very similar.
Earlier exposure to eggs also appears to be beneficial for infants.
The PETIT trial exposed Japanese infants 4-5 months old with eczema to daily egg powder or a placebo, finding that those exposed to eggs had a 78% lower risk of developing an egg allergy in the first year of their life. That’s huge!
Although there’s no standardized guideline for introducing other allergenic foods to babies, research suggests it’s likely that others could be introduced in the same way – especially if it’s a food you are particularly concerned about or your baby is at high-risk for allergies.
Here are some ways you could introduce some of the other common allergy foods to your child:
- Crumbled tofu, raw or scrambled, or blended into a smoothie
- Organic, plain, unsweetened soy milk, plain or used in a recipe, soup, or smoothie
- Wheat toast with hummus, sliced into thin strips for baby-led weaning
- Whole wheat noodles, plain or with tomato sauce
- Cashew or almond butter, thinned with water and introduced similarly to peanut butter
- Homemade pistachio milk, made by blending raw pistachios with water until creamy
- Scrambled, or hard-boiled and cut into small chunks
- Used in baking, like for muffins or breads
Introducing Common Food Allergies to Plant-Based Diets
Introducing animal-derived food allergens to children on a plant-based diet can raise some ethical considerations, which is something that your family will have to determine whether and how to pursue.
While we can’t make that decision for you, we personally introduced the top 8 allergens to our children, with the professional perspective that it will help protect them from developing potentially severe food allergies later on.
That being said, introducing animal-derived allergenic foods to your baby doesn’t mean that you have to make animal products a part of their long-term diet if you don’t want to.
Introducing allergenic foods to babies can sound scary, but understanding current recommendations and consulting with your pediatrician can help make it easier. You may even be able to lower your child’s risk of developing a food allergy, even if your child is being raised on a predominantly plant-based diet.
Chime In: What are your thoughts on introducing allergenic foods to your littles? Have you approached this topic in your household?
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Thank you for writing this! Perfect timing as I’m about to start solids with my baby in a month and had this exact question!
What did you do for shellfish/fish introduction? How did you make it appropriate for a 6 mo old?
I’m here with the same question. Baby girl is 9 months old and I’m at a loss here.
Thanks – this post is so timely for us and my husband and I were just talking about this! We’ve been vegan for a couple years and plan to raise our infant plant-based as well, but I agree on introducing to the top allergens, including the animal products.
Glad it was helpful for you Kim!
For how long should we expose our baby to allergens 3x a week? Until they’re 1 year old? Older? I can’t seem to find this info + I’ve asked nutritionists and they tend to all have a different opinion… Thanks 🙂
Yeah- unfortunately there are many differing opinions because the truth is that we just don’t know. Right now we know that “early and often” is best for peanut butter and egg exposure and we assume that’s true for the other top allergens as well. But- there are also so many factors when it comes to whether or not someone will develop and allergic reaction. Our kids were not high risk, so we felt OK stopping introduction for the allergens that aren’t part of our diet.
How long did you introduce the allergens for until stopping? I saw a recommendation of 3-4 years but I don’t know if I’ve got that in me as a plant based family.
Hi Jona, there isn’t any protocol set for how long, but most of the research introduces the allergens for 6 months – 1 year. We didn’t offer some allergens (shellfish/whitefish) for a long time with our kids, if they didn’t have a reaction after consuming them several times then we stopped.
Amazing article ! Could you please share what do you mean by “stopping introduction for the allergens that aren’t part of our diet” ? How many time have you introduced allergen before stoping it? Was it like one time or more like a week etc? Thank you !
Hi Ula, there isn’t a currently an exact protocol to follow for all of the potential allergens to reduce risk. Based on the information we have from egg and peanut studies, early and often seems to be best. In those trials, the allergen was offered often (about 2x per week). Offering it one time doesn’t seem to show potential benefits; with our kids, we offered dairy and eggs about 1x a week until the first 11/12 months. As we currently have the strongest data regarding peanuts and eggs, we felt comfortable with that approach but do recommend discussing this with your pediatrician.
I wish I had this information 3 years ago ☹️ When I was introducing solids to my son (now 3.5 yrs old) I felt so conflicted about whether I should be introducing any allergy foods to him. He is now in school and occasionally he picks up foods from other kids plate and eats it. I know this because he’ll come home with loose stools or complaining that his tummy hurts. However, we started becoming lenient and from time to time give him something that has dairy in it. Do you think it’s too late to start introducing him to these foods?
Dear Alex and Whitney,
thank you for this article and all the information you put out there. It helped us a lot.
Unfortunately we’ve only heard about this topic now and our son is 19 months.
We introduced him to the plant products (since he’s eating plant-based) but haven’t considered introducing him to the animal allergenic foods.
Now that he’s already 19 months old, how can we proceed? How often (how many times) and much importantly for how long should he be exposed to these foods? Do all of them have to be given in an equal measure? We’ve thought about giving him eggs and dairy once a week as you suggested but what about fish/shellfish? Are one or two months of exposure enough?
Thanks so much!
Hi Lena, this is a great topic to discuss with you doctor. There aren’t guidelines for older babies the way that there are for younger ones (mostly based on the LEAP trial data.) While we can assume that introduction may be helpful, that’s really seen in the first 12-18 months of life and we don’t have the data to say that’s true for older babies as well. I want to stress that you didn’t do anything wrong AND introduction isn’t foolproof– you can still have a reaction even if you followed the recommendations “perfectly.” IF your babe is at higher risk based on family history, then you may want to talk to your doctor about introduction of allergenic foods in very small amounts. Otherwise, it’s likely up to what you feel comfortable with.
What is the best way to introduce dairy? I read that milk can harm baby’s intestines.
Hi Jenny, we don’t recommend introducing liquid cow’s milk but you can introduce cheese/whole-milk plain yogurt. We both used plain yogurt to introduce dairy to our kids.