Tree nut allergy sufferers are wise to be cautious about what they eat. Allergic reactions to nuts are among the leading causes of serious food reactions. Knowing what is a tree nut and what isn’t can help guide those with tree nut allergy in making “safe” food choices.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies the following as tree nuts: walnut, almond, hazelnut, coconut, cashew, pistachio, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, beechnuts, pine nuts, gingko nuts and hickory nuts. Walnuts and cashews cause the most allergic reactions.
Individuals with tree nut allergy are advised to avoid all tree nuts and peanuts (classified as legumes) because of the potential for cross-contamination at processing facilities and possible co-allergies. Such an extensive list of what to avoid leaves many sufferers wondering what is okay.
Is coconut really a tree nut?
Coconut, while classified as a tree nut by the FDA, is not a true nut, but rather a drupe (a specific type of fruit). The FDA began identifying coconut as a tree nut in 2006 but coconut allergy is rare with only a few reported cases. Most of these few cases occurred in people who were not allergic to tree nuts.
Check with your doctor before avoiding coconut, which has many health benefits due to its fiber, medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), vitamins and minerals. Coconut was once regarded as unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content but now is believed to one of the “healthiest oils.”
Coconut oil is comprised of predominantly MCFAs which do not have negative effects on cholesterol and help protect against heart disease, according to researchers. There are few dietary sources of MCFAs other than coconut and palm kernel oil, made from the fruit of palm trees, and not a nut.
What about cocoa?
Cocoa, rather cacao, is not a nut but is the fruit of the cacao tree. Chocolate is made from the seeds of this fruit.
Other nut-like foods that are not nuts
Nutmeg in its whole form resembles a nut but is not one. Rather nutmeg is obtained from the seeds of a tropical tree and is generally safe for those with tree nut allergy.
Water chestnuts also appear to be nuts but actually are the edible portion of a plant root known as a “corm” and are safe for someone allergic to nuts.
Seeds not nuts
Many individuals with tree nut allergy substitute seeds in order to get similar health benefits. Some to try include sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds.
Be vigilant in reading labels
Unexpected sources of nuts are the biggest danger for those with tree nut allergy. Those with the allergy need to thoroughly check labels on any foods, condiments and beverages.