Numerous genes are involved in innate and adaptive immunity and these have been modified over millions of years. During this evolution, the mucosal immune system has developed two anti-inflammatory strategies: immune exclusion by the use of secretory antibodies to control epithelial colonization of microorganisms and to inhibit the penetration of potentially harmful agents; and immunosuppression to counteract local and peripheral hypersensitivity against innocuous antigens, such as food proteins.

The latter strategy is called oral tolerance when induced via the gut. Homeostatic mechanisms also dampen immune responses to commensal bacteria. The mucosal epithelial barrier and immunoregulatory network are poorly developed in newborns. The perinatal period is, therefore, critical with regard to the induction of food allergy. The development of immune homeostasis depends on windows of opportunity during which innate and adaptive immunity are coordinated by antigen-presenting cells.

The function of these cells is not only orchestrated by microbial products but also by dietary constituents, including vitamin A and lipids, such as polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.

These factors may in various ways exert beneficial effects on the immunophenotype of the infant. The same is true for breast milk, which provides immune-inducing factors and secretory immunoglobulin A, which reinforces the gut epithelial barrier. It is not easy to dissect the immunoregulatory network and identify variables that lead to food allergy.

This Review discusses efforts to this end and outlines the scientific basis for future food allergy prevention.