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Curbing food allergy

FOOD allergy is not a condition that makes people sit up and take notice. In fact, it may even lose out (in terms of the amount of attention paid to it) to minor ailments like the common cold. But if we know the consequences of food allergy, some of which are immediate while others may surface only in later life, we will not view it as trivial. Let's check out some facts about food allergy.

Young targets

Although food allergy has no age barrier, babies and young children are particularly susceptible. Most food allergies occur during the first three to four years of life, with cow's milk allergy being one of the most common'. Food allergy is now estimated to affect 5-20% of all children.

Much more than itches and sneezes

On its own, food allergy is already annoying enough with symptoms like itching, hives, swelling, sneezing; coughing, diarrhoea and vomiting. But what many people are ignorant of is the fact that food allergy in infancy may lead to the development of other allergic diseases such as eczema, allergic rhinitis and asthma later on in life, forming what we call an "allergy march". So, it is worth every effort to prevent food allergy right from the start, i.e. in infancy.

Cow's milk as the trigger

Food allergy occurs when our immune sys- tem mistakes a harmless component in food, usually a protein, as "dangerous" and over- reacts, giving rise to the symptoms mentioned.

So, it helps to know what foods are more potent or allergenic. These have been narrowed down to eggs, milk, peanuts and tree nuts, soy bean, fish, shellfish and wheat,,. However, cow's milk protein is still the main food allergen to which infants are first exposed and unmodified cow's milk contains more than 32 proteins with great potential of causing allergy.

Breastfeeding prevents food allergy

So, to prevent food allergy in babies, they have to be given a hypoallergenic milk that will not cause adverse reactions. This brings us to breastfeeding. Considered as the "gold standard", breast milk is hypoallergenic. The protein in breast milk, being a human protein, is not regarded as foreign by the baby's immune system and therefore does not trigger allergic reactions.

In addition to being hypoallergenic, breast milk activates and strengthens the child's immune defences by supporting the growth of Bifidobacteria (bifidogenic effect), a type of beneficial bacteria that live in the intestine. Bifidobacteria offers protection against allergic diseases and intestinal infections caused by other harmful bacteria.

Special properties of breast milk

Breast milk has a unique combination of bifidogenic factors that help Bifidobacteria grow and multiply in babies' intestine. This combination comprises:

A low protein content

A low phosphorus content

A high lactose content

The low protein and phosphorus content help to create an acidic environment in the intestine that supports the growth of Bifidobacteria. Lactose also encourages the flourishing of Bifidobacteria because it is the preferred food for Bifidobacteria.

So, breast milk not only supplies all the essential nutrients for normal growth and development during the first six months after birth, it also keeps food allergy at bay.

Hypoallergenic formula

If you cannot breastfeed due to medical reasons, your child does not have to fall victim to food allergy. Use a clinically proven hypoallergenic formula that is meant for allergy prevention. In such a formula, the cow's milk proteins, which have high potential of causing allergy, have been modified with heat and enzyme treatment into smaller units that are less allergenic.

Some hypoallergenic formulas also have bifidogenic factors, like a high quality but low protein content, high lactose and low phosphorus level. So, these hypoallergenic formulas help to prevent allergy as well as support the growth of Bifidobacteria for further protection against allergy and intestinal infections.

According to a commentary by the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), soy protein formulas do not pre- vent allergic diseases. Consult your doctor before using soy protein based formulas because your child may be allergic to soy protein, which is one of the allergenic foods we highlighted earlier. In fact, soy protein is as allergenic as cow's milk protein.

Careful weaning

Food allergy is also influenced by the state of the digestive tract and age at which the offensive food is first introduced. Babies and young children have immature digestive and immune systems. So, it is best to delay the introduction of solid foods until your child is six months old.

Even then, highly allergenic foods like peanuts and shellfish should be left out until your child is at least a year old. New foods should be given to your child one at a time. This enables any food allergy to be pinpointed easily.

Food allergy is the beginning of the long and miserable "allergy march". So, ensure your child's foods are all treats and not threats. 


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