Cracking the Threat of Nut Allergies

by in Food Safety, Healthy Tips, April 30, 2009

Nut allergies are serious business. Millions of Americans have them. Not only can reactions be life-threatening, but it’s tough even knowing which foods contain nuts these days. Even if you’re not allergic, it’s good to know the basics to keep dinner guests, kids and your co-workers safe.

Peanuts vs. Tree Nuts
Peanuts are actually not nuts at all — they’re a type of legume, so they’re more like a bean than a nut. This is why some people may be allergic to peanuts and not tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews and pecans.

Aside from steering clear of nuts and nut butters, those with allergies need to be mindful of a variety of other foods. Peanuts are commonly found in many Asian foods, candies, chili, soups, baked goods, marzipan and other sweets. You’ll find tree nuts in barbecue sauces, cereals, crackers, salad dressing and ice cream. You should also avoid natural extracts, such as pure almond extract, because they too may trigger an allergic reaction.

Allergic reactions can be a mild as a rash or a life-threatening medical emergency called anaphylaxis. Levels of sensitivity also vary; for some people, as little as 1/100th of a peanut or the aroma of peanuts can cause a reaction, but for others, it might be a slight reaction. Keep that in mind if you have a dinner guest or family member with allergies — you may think you’re keeping dangerous foods separate, but be sure to warn them just in case.

What To Look For
Americans have become much more vigilant to food allergies in recent years. Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, all food labels must include a disclaimer stating clearly if a food contains peanuts and tree nuts (or other common allergens such as wheat, milk and soy). Labels must also indicate if a food was processed in a facility that also processes potential allergens. All this labeling helps take the guesswork out of what foods are safe to eat if you have a food allergy. As you can see from this WebMD chart, it’s not always obvious what foods may contain nuts.

Nut-Free Environments
If you or a loved one has a food allergy, you probably run a tight ship at home, but there’s still a whole wide world out there. Some schools and workplaces are banning nuts outright to help. It may seem inconvenient to some, but it’s better safe than sorry for others. (Note that only about 150 people die each year from nut-allergy complications in America.) If your office decides to become nut-free, it’s for a good reason. Try to be as understanding as possible — and just enjoy your PB&J at home (or make them with soy nut butter instead).

Risks of Cross Contamination
Aside from foods that contain nuts (or are processed around nuts), it’s also important to avoid cross-contamination when cooking or eating nuts when you are around someone who is sensitive. Here are a few simple rules I always keep in mind:

  • Wash hands thoroughly after cooking with or handling nut products
  • Clean utensils well between uses — for example, don’t dip the same knife in the peanut butter and jelly jars.
  • When dining out, make sure to ask your server about sauces, desserts and other foods that may contain or be served with nuts

Replacing the Nutrients from Nuts
We love nuts because they’re great sources of vegetarian protein, fiber and healthy fats. That doesn’t mean those with nut allergies should go without — you can get that stuff from other foods. Soy products of all kinds, including tofu, edamame, soy crisps and tempeh, are great plant sources of protein. Whole grains such as brown rice, oats and whole wheat also contain some protein and fiber. Healthy fats from olive oil and flax seed can provide the same heart-healthy unsaturated fats found in nuts. Walnuts are well-known for their omega-3 fat content, but flax is a great source of this nutrient.

Nut-Free Snacks
Nuts are a common snack food, but it’s a good idea to have other snack alternatives for play dates or guests. Here are a few healthy and delicious ones:

  • Fresh fruit cut up for on-the-go or frozen for a cool treat
  • Dried fruit or fruit leathers
  • Vegetable strips with hummus or light salad dressing
  • Whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese or sunflower seed butter
  • Trail mix with dried fruit, puffed rice and seeds
  • Smoothies
  • Soy products — soy nut butter, dried soy nuts
  • Hard boiled eggs

For more information on food allergies, visit the FDA website or the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance.

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