The babies of mothers’ who regularly fed their infants’ yoghurt have been found to have much lower rates of eczema and allergies, a New Zealand study has found.

The Health Research Council-funded study involved 390 mothers in Wellington and Auckland  who were asked about what they fed their babies in the first year of life. Researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington and University of Auckland saw the babies regularly to monitor for signs of eczema and the babies were given a skin prick test for allergy when they were a year old.

“We found up to 70 per cent reduction in eczema and allergy in the first year of life for daily consumers,” said Dr Julian Crane of the University of Otago, Wellington who led the study. “The more regularly yoghurt was given, the greater the effect.”  The study was published in late March in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy.

The researchers say the results should encourage parents to consider feeding their infants yoghurt, especially if they are worried about a risk of eczema or allergic disease.

Full fat, plain, unsweetened yoghurt is already recommended by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation and other groups for infants from six months of age as an excellent food. The researchers believe this finding about allergy protection in infants eating yoghurt may provide an added benefit.

“We found that regular consumption of yoghurt gave stronger protection, but what we don’t know yet, is what type of yoghurt is best or how much is protective,” cautioned Crane.

The researchers also do not know whether the effect will last into later childhood.

“In addition, our study does not provide ‘proof’ that it is the yoghurt that is responsible.  This would require a trial in which some infants get yoghurt and some don’t. No such trial has yet been done,” said Crane.

“What we have found is an ‘association’ – i.e. infants who were fed yoghurt had less eczema and were less likely to be allergic.  At least two other things could explain this.”

These are, that parents who give yoghurt to their infants also do other things that might be reducing the chances of allergies that the researchers are not aware of.

Or, if parents whose children are at increased risk of eczema and allergy deliberately avoid yoghurt, this may make it appear that yoghurt is giving protection.

“We don’t think this is the case, but only a trial where parents can’t choose yoghurt could prove this,” said Crane.

In the meantime, plain unsweetened yoghurt is recommended for infants from six months of age as it may reduce allergies.

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