If you’re worried about your child’s risk of celiac disease and wondering when to introduce gluten-containing foods, then you’ll want to know about two new studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.
Celiac disease is an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine, and while it can be successfully managed with a gluten-free diet, it is a lifelong disease. (Celiac disease is distinct from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a murky and controversial condition that may not be related to gluten at all.)
I reviewed the research on early infant feeding and risk of celiac disease on my blog about a year ago (Breastfeeding, Gluten Introduction, and Risk of Celiac Disease). I have since received lots of comments and messages from parents concerned about this, so I wanted to be sure to write about these important new studies.
These latest studies dramatically advance our understanding of this topic because they are randomized controlled trials. Both started with a group of babies already identified as being high-risk for celiac disease, randomly assigned them to different time of introduction of gluten, and then tracked their development of the disease. Previous studies were all observational, thus only able to identify associations between variables, and were limited by confounding factors and other sources of bias.
The first study was led by researchers in the Netherlands but included children born in 7 European countries and in Israel. 944 babies were identified as being high-risk for celiac based on a genetic predisposition (HLA genotype) and having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with celiac. The babies were randomized to two groups, and one group was given a small amount (100 mg) of gluten starting at 4 months of age, while the control group was given a placebo and instructed not to introduce gluten until 6 months, at which point parents in both groups were advised to gradually introduce gluten-containing foods. The incidence of celiac disease was tracked through 3 years of age, with all suspected cases confirmed with an intestinal biopsy. Overall, about 5% of the study participants developed celiac disease by age 3, and it made no difference whether gluten was introduced at 4 or 6 months. It also made no difference whether the babies were breastfed (exclusively or not) or currently breastfed at the time of gluten introduction.