Food allergy and eczema

Atopic eczema is one of a group of inherited conditions that also includes asthma and hay fever. It results in the skin being dry, itchy, red, broken and sore. Eczema can affect people of all ages, but it usually starts in childhood, often improving with age.

Recent media reports have suggested that a diet high in saturated fatty acids and free from preservatives may be helpful for young children with eczema.

This has resulted in concern from nutrition and medical experts.

In advance of Allergy Awareness Week (17-23 May), the Science Media Centre has rounded up comments on this issue from experts in the field.

Dr Carol Wham, Senior Lecturer in Human Nutrition at Massey University comments:

“The main point is that childhood eczema can be caused by a variety of triggers.  Factors that have been established as possible causes include skin irritants such as wool, heat, sweating, low humidity, stress. Environmental allergens such as dust mites, pollens, moulds have also been implicated. Dietitians tend to become involved when factors other than food have been ruled out. By and large milk and eggs are the most commonly reported food related causes. However, exclusion of a single food such as milk results in the elimination of many nutrients. To ensure nutritional adequacy it is wise to seek the guidance of a dietitian who can plan and monitor the sort of foods that should be included.

“There is no evidence that diets high in saturated fats and preservatives are a good way of treating eczema. There is however an abundance of evidence that diets high in saturated fats are harmful for heart health and that preservatives may trigger food intolerance in some children.”

Dr Vincent Crump, from the Auckland Allergy Clinic comments:

“There are no human studies showing that a high saturated fat diet and / or a diet low in additives can reduce allergies. In New Zealand where childhood obesity is such a big problem, it would be very irresponsible to recommend a diet high in fats, since there is no evidence that this can prevent allergies. I think someone is misinterpreting a recent study done in mice, where the immune system was probably defective to start with.

“There are numerous double-blind placebo-controlled trials showing that it is extremely rare for food additives to cause any adverse reactions in children.”

Registered Dietitian Amber Parry Strong comments:

“Young children do need a balanced and nutrient-dense diet that includes some fat, but diets high in saturated fatty acids are inappropriate.

“Continuing research is linking some food additives, for example some preservatives and
colourings, to adverse reactions with the skin (rash, eczema), breathing (asthma) and behaviour. Reactions to additives are, however, considered a food intolerance, rather than a food allergy, as a different part of the immune system is activated. No data exists on the prevalence of additive intolerances, although food regulatory authorities estimate that only around 1-2% may react to food additives.

“It is important that parents don’t start eliminating foods from their children’s diet inappropriately, as this could lead to nutritional deficiencies. If there is a genuine food allergy or intolerance then dietary advice from a registered dietitian should be sought.”

To talk to these or any other scientists about food allergy and eczema, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email:

Notes to Editors

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at