I’m hoping you can clarify some things for me regarding nut allergies.
One of my sons has a tree nut allergy. I have consulted with four different allergy specialists, and there is no consensus on whether coconuts and pine nuts are safe for him to eat (or not).
I don’t want to experiment and “see what happens”.
I really hope you can shed some light on this. I would hate to restrict his diet any more than it already is if I don’t need to.
— Monica (Last name withheld)
Santa Cruz, CA
Welcome to the complex world of food allergies! Let’s make this as simple as possible with some handy dandy bullet points:
- “Tree nut” is a vernacular term. From a botanical standpoint, many “tree nuts” are drupes (“fruits… with an outer skin, a usually pulpy and succulent middle layer, and a hard and woody inner shell usually enclosing a single seed,” as so perfectly defined by the folks at Dictionary.com) or seeds. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the general “tree nut” term throughout the remainder of this post.
- Allergic reactions are caused by seed-storage proteins in these tree nuts.
- As Kenneth Roux of the Department of Biological Science and Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University explained in a thorough article published in the August 2003 issue of the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, seed-storage proteins have “defense-related properties”. In other words, their job is to repel insects and fungi in order to allow these tree nuts to grow.
- Some tree nuts are related. For example, cashews and pistachios belong to the same family, as do walnuts and pecans. This results in what is known as “cross-reactivity”, meaning that the same seed-storage protein is present in more than one tree nut.
- Since most individuals with tree nut allergies react to more than one tree-nut, the general advice is to avoid all varieties.
- Even though pine nuts are seeds, there is sufficient cross-reactivity with other tree nuts to make them completely unsafe for anyone with a tree nut allergy.
- The coconut issue, meanwhile, is extremely convoluted. In October of 2006, the Food & Drug Administration added coconuts to the list of foods that must be labeled as “tree nuts” under Section 201 (qq) of the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.
- Interestingly, coconut is not considered a “tree nut” from an allergy standpoint by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology or the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
- I choose to side with the allergy experts and consider coconut a safe food for anyone with a tree nut allergy.
- Keep in mind that some individuals are allergic to coconut. However, the research literature has yet to establish any relationship between those allergies and tree nut ones. Of the small handful of individuals diagnosed with coconut allergies, some are also allergic only to walnuts, others only to hazelnuts, and others to no tree nuts at all. The vast majority of individuals with tree nut allergies are able to consume pure coconut with no problems. I specify “pure coconut” as opposed to processed coconut by-products which may be prepared and/or stored in facilities where cross-contamination with tree nuts may occur.
My verdict: Pine nuts are definitely on the “avoid” list, while pure coconut (assuming it is stored and prepared in such a way that cross-contamination with other tree nuts does not occur) is generally safe.