Babies fed porridge from an early age may be protected against asthma, according to new research.
The earlier infants are introduced to porridge, or other foods made from oats, the less likely they are to develop the respiratory condition, a study by Finnish scientists has concluded.
The risk of asthma later in childhood is reduced by almost two-thirds in babies first fed oats before they reach five months of age, compared to those introduced to them later, the research shows. Scientists who carried out the study believe early exposure to oats may be crucial in helping to ward off the disease.
But the findings clash with Department of Health infant feeding guidelines, which recommend breastfeeding for six months before introducing solid foods.
At least 1.1million children in the UK suffer with asthma and the condition kills around 40 youngsters a year.
According to Asthma UK, Britain has the highest rates in the world of 'severe wheeze' in young teenagers. Research has focused on how diet and environment early in life might affect a child's chances of developing the disease.
A team of scientists from Finland studied almost 1,300 children whose parents took part in a diet and lifestyle study between 1996 and 2000. They wanted to see if certain foods either raised the risk of asthma and hay fever, or reduced them.
Each family recorded infant feeding patterns from an early age and the children were then followed up for at least five years.
The results, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed babies fed porridge in their first few months of life were 64 per cent less likely to have chest problems as a toddler than those who did not eat it or who started later.
The same team also found babies fed fish at an early age had much lower rates of hay fever by the time they were five years old.
In a report on their findings, the researchers said: 'Oats are a commonly used cereal in Finland, as porridge and bread.
'Animal and cell experiments suggest oats may affect the immune system and have anti-inflammatory properties.
'The same is true for fish.
'Our findings imply that delaying the introduction of oats in infancy may increase the risk of asthma by the age of five in some children.'
Porridge has enjoyed something of a revival as a health food in recent years.
Some studies suggest a medium-sized bowl each morning can reduce cholesterol by about ten per cent.
Sales during the recent cold snap reportedly soared as consumers sought out foods that could help them fight the freeze.
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