When their oldest daughter was born 11 years ago, entrepreneurs Catherine and JJ Jaxon followed the standard medical advice for infants: They didn’t give her peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, or other common food allergens. By the time their daughter was 3, they learned that she was allergic to most nuts.
In 2015, when their youngest baby was born, the advice was starting to change. A major new study showed that introducing peanuts to a baby, and keeping them in the diet for the next five years, could reduce the rate of peanut allergies by as much as 86%. “Basically, what we had been doing as Americans, and in some other countries, was really the worst thing we could possibly do,” JJ Jaxon says. Between 1997 and 2015, the rate of peanut allergies in the U.S. more than quadrupled.
The Jaxons wanted to give their newborn the best chance of avoiding allergies, but they struggled to find food that would work. “Nuts and nut butters are a choking hazard for a baby, so you can’t give them nuts and nut butters in their natural form,” Catherine Jaxon says. “And then the entire baby food industry was allergen-free, because the guidelines had been in place for years. So we were just really frustrated. I remember reading the study and thinking Wow, we have the potential to avoid another food allergy in our family. But why is there no product in the baby food aisle that makes this possible?”
Their solution was to make snacks for their child at home. But eventually they reached out to Gideon Lack, the professor of pediatric allergy at King’s College London who had published the groundbreaking study, known as LEAP (Learning About Peanuts Early). Over several years, the Jaxons and Lack developed a new product together that launched last year—a “proactive peanut puff” snack designed for babies to eat that includes the right dose of peanuts to help protect them from allergies. Their startup, Mission MightyMe, now sells the snack online in packets that each contain the right dose of peanut protein for a week. They contain just a few ingredients: organic peanuts and rice, along with a little sea salt and calcium carbonate.
The official recommendations have changed since the LEAP study. The National Institutes of Health issued new guidelines in 2017 recommending early introduction of peanuts; other organizations followed suit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave similar recommendations in 2020. Now, there are a handful of other products on the market that can safely expose infants to peanuts, although not all are based on the science from the LEAP study.
In Israel, a peanut snack for children has been common for decades. Not coincidentally, peanut allergy rates in Israel are far lower than in the U.S. or U.K. where guidelines had been different; Lack actually began his study after a trip to Israel where he’d talked to fellow allergists and learned that few Israeli children had peanut allergies. (The Jaxons also ordered the Israeli snack, called Bamba, but wanted to develop a healthier, less Cheeto-like alternative.)
Children at the highest risk of allergies should see a pediatrician before eating foods containing peanuts; given the okay, they can start eating them at 4 to 6 months old. Other children can start at 6 months. “Under age 1 is the safest time to introduce any food allergens, because any reaction typically is much milder,” Catherine Jaxon says. If every parent begins introducing peanuts to children early, allergy rates will drop drastically.
“If we get full widespread household adoption, then the amount of peanut allergy in this country could be virtually eliminated from children in 20 years,” JJ Jaxon says. Australia shows early signs of what can happen: They changed official guidelines in 2016 based on the LEAP study and promoted those new guidelines, getting them implemented more quickly than in the U.S.; the country has already seen a 16% reduction in peanut allergies among infants.