Giving babies Weetabix from four months of age may prevent them developing allergies to wheat, research suggests.
A study led by King’s College London found that introducing high doses of gluten from early on could offer protection against coeliac disease.
However, experts warned that more studies were needed before changes are made to national advice on weaning – the NHS currently recommends babies are weaned from around six months of age
For the study, researchers examined data from 1,004 youngsters who had been randomly split into two groups.
The 516 children in one group were exclusively breastfed until they were around six months old, while the 488 children in the other group ate allergenic foods (peanut, sesame, wheat, eggs, cod fish and cow’s milk) as well as breastmilk from around four months of age.
The results showed that at age three, seven of the children in the breastmilk-only group had developed coeliac disease, compared with none in the group that had been given wheat.
The research, called the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) Study, was published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics and included experts from King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, St George’s, University of London, and the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease in which eating gluten – found in foods such as bread, pasta, cereals and biscuits – causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues.
Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, wind, constipation and indigestion.
Sufferers must exclude gluten from their diet and there are currently no strategies to prevent people developing the disease.
For the EAT study, the babies who were given wheat were fed 4g of wheat protein every week from four months of age.
This was in the form of two wheat-based cereal biscuits such as Weetabix.
The entire group were tested for anti-transglutaminase antibodies, an indicator of coeliac disease, at three years of age.
Those with raised antibody levels were referred for further testing by a specialist.
Lead author Gideon Lack, professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College London and head of the children’s allergy service at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital, said: “This is the first study that provides evidence that early introduction of significant amounts of wheat into a baby’s diet before six months of age may prevent the development of coeliac disease.
“This strategy may also have implications for other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.”
Author Dr Kirsty Logan, researcher in paediatric allergy at King’s College London, said: “Early introduction of gluten and its role in the prevention of coeliac disease should be explored further, using the results of the EAT Study as the basis for larger clinical trials to definitively answer this question.”
Dr Adrienne Cullum, head of nutrition science at Public Health England (PHE), said: “Most infants should start solid foods when they are around six months old.
“Evidence suggests that allergenic foods such as gluten can be introduced from around six months and do not need to be differentiated from other solid foods.”