One food phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping: The "free from" trend, in which products display a long list of ingredients they are "free from", like dairy, soy, nuts, gluten, and egg. No doubt there are people with allergies who must avoid certain ingredients. Yet plenty of people cut out foods and ingredients without a medical reason--and instead, because they believe they feel better without them or simply view it as a healthier way to eat.
That's all well and good for grown-ups. But what about for babies?
I recently learned about a company that makes purees, cereal, and finger foods for babies and toddlers that are free from gluten, soy, egg, and dairy, which they refer to as common allergens that can upset babies' tummies.
Indeed, soy, egg, dairy, and wheat are among the top allergens. But saying they can upset all baby's systems seems like a stretch. And the idea of proactively avoiding them seems at best unnecessary, and at worst, unwise.
Avoiding common allergens from the get-go falls strongly against the recommendations of both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, says Ari Brown, MD, an Austin, TX pediatrician and Parents advisor. "Early introduction of high-allergy foods seems to be protective against food allergies and celiac disease," she says.
The AAP advises introducing solid foods--including soy, dairy, egg, and gluten--around 6 months of age, says Brown, who adds that introducing gluten between 4-7 months of age is advised to reduce the risk of celiac disease.
There's no evidence that holding off on these foods can help prevent allergies, notes pediatric dietitian and Parents advisor Jill Castle, RD. In fact, new guidelines were issued recommending that some babies be introduced to peanut protein as early as 4-6 months to help prevent allergy. And a recent study published in the journal Diabetes Care showed that children who were introduced to gluten after nine months of age showed more potential risk for developing Type 1 diabetes than those introduced to it at an earlier age.
Beyond the issue of allergies, nixing entire foods or food groups from a baby's diet without medical reason could be nutritionally risky. "Nutrition during the first two years of life is critical," says Castle. "Elimination of certain foods without clear indication of an intolerance can interrupt the nutrient composition of the diet and cause imbalances, and even possibly encourage a deficiency if alternate food sources are not included in the diet."
So how do you know when you should avoid a food or ingredient? "I would not recommend taking foods out of a baby's diet unless the baby's doctor suggests it due to food allergy issues that are identified," says Brown. Signs of a food allergy include severe eczema, blood or mucous in the stool, hives, or anaphylaxis tied to eating a food.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.