Allergies to peanuts and tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, etc.) are among the most common food allergies. Currently, it is estimated that between 6 million and 7 million adults in the United States are allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts. Children also may be allergic to these foods.
Like other food allergies, people allergic to peanuts and tree nuts are actually allergic to a protein contained in the food. When an allergic person eats the food, the immune system responds by causing various symptoms, some of which can be life threatening.
Allergic reactions such as hives, headache, swelling of the face or trouble breathing usually develop within an hour of exposure to peanuts or tree nuts. A blood test, called a RAST, or radioallergosorbent test, can be done by your doctor to confirm the allergy. Skin-prick testing can be potentially dangerous in very sensitive individuals and should not be performed if there is a history of strong reaction to peanuts or tree nuts.
Although an allergy to peanuts does not necessarily mean a person also is allergic to tree nuts, most experts recommend that peanut-allergic people avoid tree nuts and vice versa. Experts usually advise people who have been diagnosed with an allergy to a specific tree nut to avoid all tree nuts. Interestingly, several studies have shown that many allergic individuals can consume peanut oil that has not been cold pressed, expelled, or extruded (sometimes represented as gourmet peanut oils) without experiencing a reaction. Reasoning for this is that the process used to make commercial oils eliminates the protein. Since the protein is the part of the peanut that causes the reaction, peanut oil may be safe.
Peanut and tree nut allergies can be life threatening, so they must be taken seriously. People with allergies need to be knowledgeable and vigilant about potential, and sometimes hidden, sources of the allergies. Parents or caregivers should alert teachers, family members and friends if their child has an allergy, as well as provide information about what to do in an emergency. As with any food allergy, people who experience severe reactions should wear an alert bracelet or necklace.
Peanuts and tree nuts can be found in many foods. To help consumers manage their allergies, the Food Allergy Network has prepared the following list of potential hidden sources of peanuts and tree nuts.
- Peanuts and tree nuts are commonly found in a wide variety of foods, including cookies, candy, chocolate bars, desserts, breads, granola and health bars, hydrogenated oil, potato chips, salad dressings, vegetable burgers, vegetable oils and shortening, margarine and prepared soups. Check labels carefully, but also be aware that contamination with peanut dust may have unintentionally occurred during processing.
- Arachis oil is another name for peanut oil.
- African, Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese dishes often have peanuts and/or tree nuts in them, or may be contaminated during preparation.
- Be aware that foods prepared and sold in bakeries and ice cream shops may have come into contact with peanuts during preparation.
- Chocolate candies are another product that may have come in contact with peanuts during manufacturing.
- The inclusion of mixed nuts, ground nuts, mandelonas (peanuts soaked in almond flavoring), goober nuts, goober peas, beer nuts, and/or artificial nuts in ingredient lists usually indicates the presence of peanut protein.
- Many brands of sunflower seeds are produced on equipment used in peanut processing.
- Tree nuts are used in many foods, including barbecue sauces, cereals, breads, crackers and ice cream.
- Natural and artificial flavors sometimes contain tree nuts.
- Hacky sacks, kick sacks and bean bags are sometimes filled with crushed nutshells.
For additional information about peanut and tree nut allergies, contact the Food Allergy Network at 1-800-929-4040 or visit their Web site at www.foodallergy.org.