Living with Dietary Restrictions: Tree Nuts and Peanuts

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Image from MorgueFileCan you imagine an elementary school lunch without a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?   How about getting on an airplane without getting a tiny bag of nuts?  And as if both of those weren’t enough, what if you couldn’t even eat chili to warm you up on a cold fall evening?   These are just a few items on the do not eat, touch, etc. list for people suffering from nut allergies.   And while it isn’t necessarily the most common item to be allergic to, nut allergies have begun to occur more and more.   Robert Wood, MD, director of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore told WebMD, “The number of people with peanut allergies doubled over a recent five-year period, from four in 1,000 people in 1997 to eight in 1,000 in 2002.”  This growth may mean more people could potentially suffer from the ill effects of the stray peanut or tree nut, but it also means an increased awareness to the allergy.

What’s the difference between tree nut and peanut allergies?

Often when a person is diagnosed as allergic to peanuts they are also told to avoid tree nuts and vice versa.  This is because according to the Food Allergy Initiative, “30-40% of people who have peanut allergy also are allergic to tree nuts.”  But what exactly is the difference?  The main answer is simply the plant family from which they are produced.

Tree nut allergies are basically nuts grown on trees.  The proteins in these nuts are what cause the allergic reaction.  The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) says that about 1.8 million Americans are allergic to this family of nuts which are also one of the leading causes of death among those with food allergies.

Peanut allergies are caused by a similar protein to that in tree nuts and basically present the same reactions (anything from breaking out in hives to anaphylaxis).   The main difference between the two is that a peanut is a member of the legume family along with items like peas and lentils.

What should be avoided?

Image from MorgueFileSince there are so many different types of nuts, it can be difficult to know exactly what to avoid.  While it may sound easy at first to just avoid a peanut or an almond there is a lot more to the process.  First, for tree nut allergies it’s important to know what qualifies under U.S. law as that particular item which means it must be labeled as containing tree nuts on packaged food items.  The Food Allergy Initiative lists the following as being considered tree nuts under U.S. law:  almond; Brazil nut; cashew; chestnut; filbert/hazelnut; macadamia nut; pecan; pine nut (pignolia nut); pistachio; walnut.  For peanut allergy sufferers the basic peanut is the main culprit to avoid.

But just because you avoid the tree nut or peanut in its most basic state, doesn’t mean that’s the only item to stay away from.  Items like barbecue sauce, chili and even spaghetti sauce sometimes use peanut butter or peanut flour as a thickener.  NBC Washington also advises to be careful with pancakes, salad dressing, pasta, pie crust and meatless burgers that may contain traces of different types of nuts.  When eating out it’s a good idea to also avoid ice-cream parlors (due to shared scoops) and Asian and African restaurants due to the risk of cross-contamination since many of their foods contain different types of nuts.  Kids Health even warns to be especially careful when performing some everyday activities due to the possibility of coming in contact with nuts.  They list items such as bird seed, hamster food and bedding, cosmetics and even ant traps as items that could cause a reaction due to nut contamination.

What are some alternatives?

Thankfully for allergy sufferers, items containing these products must be marked on the outside of the package as either containing or possibly coming in contact with nuts.  This leads to a pretty wide variety of products that are nut-free.  PeanutSafeFood.com  has a fairly comprehensive list of several products nut-free and non cross-contaminated items including: Sun Chips, Vanilla Wafers cookies, Skittles, Special K Bars, Betty Crocker Angel Food Cake Mix, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Blue Bell Creameries Dutch Chocolate Ice Cream.  And if you’re in the market to try some goodies specially made to be peanut-, tree nut-, milk-, and egg-free, check out Divvies.  Their facility specializes in making items with minimal cross contamination and as allergen-free as possible.   They offer items ranging from gourmet popcorn to cupcakes and even have a cupcake to help you make your own nut free items at home.

Eating Tree Nut and Peanut Free on the Go

Eating nut-free on the go can be a bit more difficult than some allergies due to the ability for small traces to cause big reactions.  Just as in our previous dairy-free post, it’s extremely important to be aware of the possibility of cross-contamination.  Because reactions can be severe, it’s extremely important that you make servers or your host aware of your allergy ahead of time to prevent any accidents from happening in the kitchen.   It’s important to remember that even something as small as not fully sanitizing a knife that has come in contact with a nut can cause a severe reaction.  Kids Health advises, “If the manager or owner of a restaurant is uncomfortable about your request for peanut- or nut-free food preparation, don’t eat there.”

In the meantime, if you’re on the go and curious as to where it’s safe to eat, you can rest assured that there are options available.  A great site for looking up ingredients and policies at different restaurants prior to visiting is Project Allergy.  This site has a plethora of places that are nut-allergy friendly that’s not only includes restaurants, but also lists hotels and airlines as well.  Project Allergy restaurant lists include everything from kid-focused places to the family-friendly and just about anything else you might be craving.  For the kids, Chuck E. Cheese’s warns against cross-contamination in many birthday and sweets options, but overall could be an option.   If you’re looking for family dining Applebee’s  can provide around three pages worth of everything from appetizers right down to desserts that are safe to dine on for nut-allergy sufferers.  Even theme parks like Holiday World (in Indiana) and Hershey Park (in Pennsylvania) have joined in to help make sure everyone can have a fun getaway without having to worry about a bad allergic reaction.

Delicious Tree Nut and Peanut Free recipes to try at home

Nut-Free Pesto from Parents Connect

Peanut-Free “Mock” Buckeyes from Kids With Food Allergies

How do you or your family members deal with being Tree Nut and Peanut Free?  Please share your story. 

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2 thoughts on “Living with Dietary Restrictions: Tree Nuts and Peanuts

  1. avatarAnne on said:

    Note for readers – The article implies that theme parks such as Hershey Park are safe for those with nut allergies. PLEASE ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT YOU CHECK WITH THE PARK keeping in mind your (or your child’s) own sensitivities. Following the Hershey Park link listed in the article takes you to a page that lists the many peanut items that are sold at Hershey Park. This is useful, and for some it may be enough to just avoid those foods. However, for many, including my 3 year-old son, just the possibility of getting a little peanut butter on his hands and then into his eyes or mouth is enough to send him to the hospital with a life-threatening reaction. In an amusement park with many small children eating and riding on rides or touching other play equipment, it is a large risk for us if there are many peanut containing foods served there. Sadly, Hershey Park is one of the many places we must avoid.

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