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There are increasing numbers of people with food allergies, and especially in the West, these numbers are getting higher. That’s according to research by the Food Allergy Foundation. Meanwhile, more and more different food products are entering the market and, as a result, it is very likely that the number of allergens will also increase.

Anyone who develops a food allergy as an adult is often out of luck: you can’t get rid of it. With young children, however, it is a different story. A food allergy can disappear on its own in some cases, and can often even be prevented altogether. For example, by introducing your child to peanuts in a low-threshold manner, you ensure that he or she does not develop a peanut allergy in the future. In fact, the LEAP Study (one of the largest studies on food allergy, ed.) found that only three percent of children developed a food allergy after being gently exposed to peanuts. In the control group, who were not exposed to peanuts at all, 17% developed a food allergy. Quite a difference, in other words.

Peanut capsules and sachets

Start-up Vini Mini launched a product to prevent peanut allergies. Minuscule amounts of powdered peanut are sold by the company in capsules or sachets. The amount of peanut you add to your child’s food is gradually increased with these dietary supplements. Co-founder Laurie Lancee ended up in the hospital with her own child after he suffered a severe allergic reaction. “My son Viggo turned out to have an egg allergy. When I gave him some egg, his body reacted very violently: his ears swelled up, he started vomiting, his feet turned blue and his body became increasingly weak.”

After examinations at the hospital, it turned out that Viggo also had an increased risk of developing other allergies, something more common among people with food allergies. Lancee wanted to prevent that at all costs. “Together with the medical team, we started giving Viggo weekly small amounts of protein from products to which many people are allergic, such as peanut and tree nuts. If we had done nothing, chances are he would have become allergic to peanut and tree nuts as well.”

Eczema is frequent predictor of food allergy

That gave Lancee an idea: to develop a ready-made product to give peanuts to a baby in a safe and easy way. Together with Jozien Boersma, she registered with the Chamber of Commerce in 2020 under the name Vini Mini. Vini Mini’s products are intended for children between four months and one year old. A distinction is made between “high-risk children” and “normal-risk children,” as Lancee calls the different target groups. High-risk children are those who have eczema or a genetic predisposition to developing allergies; all others are considered normal-risk children.

Prevention is better than a cure

Although adults can also develop a food allergy, it usually occurs in young children. For example, five to seven percent of infants and babies have a food allergy and two to three percent of adults. Until the first or second year of life, the gut and immune system are not fully developed, making a child especially susceptible to developing an allergy. A food allergy is about more than just food: it is a hypersensitivity of the mucous membrane. That’s why people with food allergies often also have or develop respiratory problems such as asthma, hay fever or intestinal problems.

Nutritional supplements from Vini Mini © Vini Mini

In preventing a food allergy, it is best to start as early as possible, is the thinking of the women of Vini Mini. Lancee: “The annoying thing is that if you start later, you can hardly get over your allergy. Then you have a permanent chronic illness.” Although Vini Mini focuses on children up to one year of age, preventing food allergies after the first year of life is also possible, says Professor Harry Wichers. For Wageningen University and Research, he is conducting research on how food allergies can be prevented in the future. “A food allergy can be prevented up to the first five years of a child’s life. But the younger you start, the more likely it is that a food allergy will be prevented. So starting nutritional supplements like Vini Mini’s from six months is definitely recommended.”

More nutritional supplements on the market

In the future, Vini Mini also wants to market dietary supplements for the prevention of other allergies. Peanut allergy is one of the most common and severe food allergies in the Netherlands, so it seemed logical for Lancee to start with that. The question is: what is the added value of a dietary supplement consisting of pure peanut? Can’t you just give your child small amounts of peanut butter? According to pediatric allergist Els van den Heuvel, both options are possible. She has Vini Mini products in her practice but has only recommended them two to three times. “Most parents find giving peanut butter from a jar more practical anyway. There are introduction schedules that make it easy for them to put together the right amounts. Some do prefer supplements because then they know for sure what they are doing. Often these are parents who themselves are familiar with food allergies.”

Plant proteins will create new allergies

Currently, there are 14 main allergens: these are the causative agents of food allergies that are most common. In total, these allergens are responsible for more than 90% of food allergies. Why is it that precisely these 14 allergens are the most common? According to Wichers, allergic reactions are almost always reactions to proteins but also to novel food ingredients. He takes kiwis as an example: “In the past, we didn’t know about kiwis. But once it was introduced, suddenly allergies to kiwis arose. Now it’s a widely sold product and we see almost no allergies to it.” But for protein, that seems to be a different story. After all, products like milk and egg are not exotic products for a Dutch supermarket. Yet these are and remain one of the most common allergies.

We see the combination of new ingredients as well as proteins, especially in vegetarian and vegan food. Meat substitutes contain vegetable proteins such as soy and nuts, but also increasingly products such as seaweed, quinoa and insects. The number of Dutch people eating meat substitutes has increased significantly in recent years, according to research by Levensmiddelenkrant. In 2021, 53% of Dutch people ate a meat substitute at least once a month. Can we expect more food allergies now that plant-based eating is on the rise? Wichers thinks so. He and his team are working on methods to estimate the likelihood of allergies to such “new” proteins. “I predict: as new products enter the market, new allergies will arise. The only question is how long it will take for that to happen, how many people will be affected and how severe the reactions will be.” So food allergies will not disappear completely but rather become more and more prevalent.