Published: November 2000


Peanut Allergy

This article is more than five years old. Some content may no longer be current.

Prescriber Update 20: 22–26
November 2000

Mary Louise Hannah, Advisor (Nutrition), Ministry of Health

Key messages:

  • Pregnant women in families with atopic disease (having conditions such as hay fever, asthma or eczema), are advised to avoid peanuts and peanut products during pregnancy and breastfeeding to assist in prevention of the development of peanut allergy.
  • For infants with a family history of atopic disease, it is advisable to solely breastfeed for at least six months and to delay the introduction of peanuts and peanut products until three years of age.
  • The ingredient lists on food labels are one source of information about the peanut content of foods.
  • The Manufactured Food Database (previously called The New Zealand Therapeutic Database) provides lists of commercial foods, available in New Zealand, that do not include peanuts and information is available on the website:

New Zealand situation

New Zealand has no prevalence data for peanut allergy but nut allergy is probably in the order of 1-2%.1  The general belief amongst immunologists is that peanut allergy is increasing.1,2,3  Peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related anaphylaxis.  In New Zealand between 1995 and 1997 out of a total 221 cases of reported food-related anaphylaxis, there were 32 hospital admissions reported as being due to peanut/nut allergy.4

Information for New Zealand health professionals

The Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Advisory Committee recently agreed that it would be useful for medical practitioners in New Zealand to receive information on peanut allergy, including the implications of a recent UK report.  This circular letter is to provide practitioners with the most recent developments in the field.  Previous information in Prescriber Update1 by Dr Penny Fitzharris, a Wellington based immunologist, discussed the possibility of prevention of peanut allergy by the avoidance of peanut products in pregnancy, during breastfeeding and in early life.1  This advice has been confirmed in the UK report.

UK report

During 1998 in the United Kingdom, the Department of Health’s Committee on the Toxicology of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, produced a report to:

  • review the available scientific literature about the association between early exposure to peanuts and peanut products and the incidence of peanut allergy in later life, and;
  • advise on the consumption of peanuts and peanut products by pregnant and breast-feeding women, infants and young children.5

The Committee's work was prompted by recent publications in scientific literature suggesting that the incidence of peanut allergy was increasing.  Peanut allergy can be very severe, with fatal anaphylaxis, and is a potentially serious health hazard.  Due to this severity, peanut allergy prevention is an important measure.  Peanut allergy is normally a life-long allergy.

Recommendations from UK report

To attempt prevention of peanut allergy, the UK report recommends the avoidance of peanuts and peanut products for the following people:

  • Pregnant women who are themselves atopic (having conditions such as hay fever, asthma or eczema), or where the biological father or sibling of the unborn child is atopic;
  • Breastfeeding women who are themselves atopic, or where the biological father or sibling of the breastfeeding child is atopic; and
  • Children with a parent or sibling who is atopic up until until three years.  It is also recommended that these children are breastfed exclusively for four to six months.

Recommendations from the New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines6

  • The UK Report’s recommendation about breastfeeding is in accord with the New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers, which recommends solely breastfeeding children with a family history of allergy to at least six months of age.  For infants, with a family history of food allergy, the introduction of solid foods should not include whole cows’ milk, soy and eggs until the infant is at least one year old and peanut products until three years old (with whole peanut products being avoided until five years old).6  For mothers who are unable to breastfeed a dairy-based formula is the best choice.  However, under the advice of a health professional, a soy-based or other infant formula may be used.7

Advice to the general public

For the non-atopic families, avoidance of peanuts or peanut products is not considered necessary during pregnancy or breastfeeding.  For infants, who are not in the above risk categories, it is acceptable for smooth peanut products, such as smooth peanut butter, to be used as a weaning food at about eight to nine months, as recommended in New Zealand Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers.  As there is the possible risk of choking it is also advised that whole peanuts are not given to children until five years of age.6

Advice to those with peanut allergy

For individuals with peanut allergy it is essential that all foods containing peanut products, even in minute amounts, be avoided completely.  Highly peanut-sensitive individuals who have a history of systemic reaction, need to carry kits with adrenaline and antihistamines on hand for self-administration promptly at the first sign of a systemic reaction.  People allergic to peanuts should avoid all tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, even if they are not sensitised to these, to minimise the risk from contamination or confusion with peanuts.1 The reintroduction of peanuts should only be carried out when no reaction to peanut and nut products has occurred for three to five years, and under strictly supervised conditions at a specialised centre.2

Labelling requirements in New Zealand and Australia

Information on the likely peanut content of foods, or the content of other food allergens, is available to the consumer from two sources; food labels and the New Zealand Therapeutic Database.  Currently general provisions for food labelling are required to comply with the New Zealand Food Regulations 1984 or the Australian Food Standards Code.  In the New Zealand Food Regulations, the only instance in which peanuts may not be declared is if they are a minor component of a mixed ingredient added to a food.  However, by about May 2002 Australia and New Zealand will have a joint standard for labelling of foods and all manufacturers should be working to a single standard.  The Australia New Zealand Food Authority is awaiting final agreement on the draft Australia New Zealand Food Code.8 There is a mandatory labelling requirement for peanuts and peanut products in the draft Code.

Declaration of other food allergens required by new draft Code

The draft Code will also require a number of other significant food allergens to be declared on all food labels.  Those food allergens include cereals containing gluten; crustacea and their products; egg and egg products; fish and fish products; milk and milk products; nuts, sesame seeds and their products; soybeans and their products; and sulphites in concentrations of 10mg/kg or more.

New Zealand Therapeutic Database

In addition to legal labelling requirements, those consumers with food allergies may be assisted by the New Zealand Therapeutic Database, which is funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Health.  This database contains information obtained from food manufacturers and distributors to enable the compilation of lists of commercial foods that are free of specific allergens.  The data are available to inform health professionals and people with allergies to assist them in allergy management.  Lists of foods free of the common food allergens are updated and published annually and are available on the website or by writing to: Mrs Alannah Steeper, NZ Therapeutic Database, Auckland Hospital, Private Bag 92024, Auckland 1.

Other Helpful Organisations

Allergy Awareness Association (PO Box 56-117, Dominion Rd, Auckland) can provide practical support to individuals and families with peanut or other allergies.

The author would like to thank a number of reviewers who provided comments on this article including: Dr John Birkbeck, Dr Jan Sinclair, Dr Rodney Ford, Dr Pat Tuohy, Dr Alison Roberts, Elizabeth Aitken, Carolyn Watts, Jane McLennan, Clare Chandler and Lyn Gillanders, and in particular Dr Penny Fitzharris.

  1. Fitzharris P. Peanut Allergy. Prescriber Update, No.15, p.13-16, Aug 1997.
  2. Hourihane J O’B, Dean TP and Warner JO. Peanut allergy in relation to heredity, maternal diet, and other atopic diseases: results of a questionnaire survey, skin prick testing and food challenges. BMJ 1996;313:518-521.
  3. Sampson HA. Managing Peanut Allergy. BMJ 1996;312:1050-1051.
  4. Extract and format. 1 July 1995-30 June 1997 public hospital discharge data. New Zealand Health Information Service. Wellington: Ministry of Health 1998.
  5. Peanut Allergy. Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products in the Environment. HMSO. London: Department of Health (UK) 1998.
  6. Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers (Aged 0-2): A background paper. Wellington: Ministry of Health 1999.
  7. Soy-based Infant Formula. Wellington: Ministry of Health 1998.
  8. DRAFT Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Wellington: Australia New Zealand Food Authority 2000.


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