Meet the start-up giving allergens to babies in the fight to reduce food allergies
The Dutch company hopes to bring out more products, involving giving babies the exact amount of allergens, to prevent them developing food allergies.
Food allergy is not a rare condition. Data from the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients Associations (EFA) suggests 17 million Europeans suffer from food reactions a year, of which 3.5 million are under the age of 25. Peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies in children and the most common cause of food allergy deaths.
The unpredictable and potentially life-threatening nature of food allergic reactions is associated with substantial anxiety and impaired quality of life for patients. The avoidable indirect costs of failure to properly treat allergy in the EU is estimated to range between 55 and €151 billion a year.
Over the last decade, the number children under five years of age with allergies has doubled, according to the EFA, and visits to the emergency room to treat anaphylactic shock have increased seven-fold.
One such highly traumatic and life-changing emergency visit inspired Dutch mother Laurie Lancee, whose six-month old son survived a severe allergic reaction after eating a small piece of egg, to develop a food supplement that can be given to babies to prevent them developing a future allergy, in this case to peanuts. The company hopes to bring out similar products for all the major food allergies.
Although allergy to milk and egg are commonly outgrown by the age of 5-10 years, allergies such as to peanut are lifelong in 80-85% of cases and affect 2% of children and 1% of adults in high-income countries.
Research from the likes of LEAP in the US has found that early childhood exposure to peanut decreases the risk of developing peanut allergy and found that this tolerance to peanut remains after one year of not eating peanuts. Similar studies in the UK have also shown repeated exposure over time to gradually increased doses of the allergen, could allow sufferers to increase their tolerance to peanuts. This research led to a new first-of-its kind drug, taken orally, to be approved in England.
Parents, however, would rather give their children food supplements (prevention) over medicine (cure), Vini Mini’s co-founder Jozien Boersma, told FoodNavigator. “One in four children have a food allergy, and this number has doubled in the past ten years,” she said. “If we continue this way, by 2050 half of the population will have a food allergy. Vini Mini helps parents prevent food allergies in their children by offering an easy, healthy and safe way to give them allergens.”
Vini Mini's products are available online, and at pharmacies and hospitals.
First, a ‘Startkit’ contains capsules or sachets with the right dosage of peanut flour to give peanut to a baby for the first time. A follow up kit contains 100% peanut flour and a measuring spoon for parents to put in their baby’s food every week for six months.
The products are intended for babies between four months and one year old. If their child is at high risk of developing a food allergy (for example, if they have eczema or a parent or sibling with an allergy) parents are advised to start giving before the age of six months. For a normal risk child, they should start before eight months. “It's healthy and safe because it's in small doses and no salt and sugar,” said Boersma, who left corporate life with Danone Early Life Nutrition to jointly set up the start-up. “The idea is that parents can give it in a safe setting in small dosages for the first time which increase perstep. The last step is the dose parents should give weekly for six months.” The method can reduce the risk of a baby developing a peanut allergy by 80%, we were told.
The products cost €14.95 and €19.95 respectively. 10% of revenues are given to parents who can't afford it but need the product for their baby. It hopes to bring prices down as it scales. This may be helped after it was recently was chosen by start-up accelerator EIT Food as one of the winners of Europe’s most promising and innovative agri-food start-ups.
The company wants to launch products aimed at preventing other common food allergies such eggs and tree-nuts. If you have a peanut allergy (which is technically a legume allergy) you've a much higher chance of developing an allergy to another legume.
After Lancee’s son was found to have an egg allergy, doctors said he was at increased risk of developing other allergies, such as peanuts and tree nuts. The medical team therefore exposed him to small doses of allergens such as hazelnuts, almonds, to prevent him becoming allergic to these. He's now four and free of all allergies.
“In an ideal world, you would have one scoop of power or a biscuit to give to a baby which contains all allergens,” explained Boersma. “But unfortunately, the scientific research for now suggests the amounts needed are too great. We are investigating how we might be able to get all the allergens combined in one product which can easily be given to babies. But there needs to be the evidence first. For now, we want to expand the number of allergens we cover and expand our distribution beyond the Netherlands and into retailers across Europe.”
Although there are discrepancies within Europe (the UK has high numbers of peanut allergy sufferers, for instance) it is believed 7-8% of the European population has a food allergy. That number has doubled over the past 10 years.
"The number of food allergies is rising, and we need to stop it… we don't want other parents to go through a traumatic experience like Laurie,” continued Boersma, adding that the start-up has so far received an enthusiastic reaction from customers. “It's important now that retailers and investors have the guts to list and invest in us to make sure we can grow faster and bigger to complete our mission of preventing food allergies.”