Nuts and seeds – the facts
Nuts and seeds are responsible for plant reproduction. Locked inside them is the genetic material for an entire plant to grow. The word ‘nut’ commonly refers to the seed of a tree, encased in a hard shell. There are more than 300 types of nuts, and every plant has a seed. In terms of worldwide production, the coconut is by far the most widely grown and used, followed by the peanut – both of which are classed as seeds. One of the reasons for their abundance is that they are the leading ingredients of cooking oils and margarines – so if you have an allergy and are eating away from home, be sure to check ingredients of any prepared foods. Food service industries including restaurants and take-aways are required by law to provide details of 14 everyday allergens, including peanuts and tree nuts.
There are significant safety issues with nut and seed consumption. Nuts are among the foods most commonly associated with allergic reactions. Allergies are different from intolerances and involve an immediate immune response upon exposure to the allergen. Symptoms include rashes, hives, asthma attacks or inflammation and in severe cases and cause anaphylaxis, a severe, possibly life-threatening allergic reaction which can affect the airways, breathing or circulation.
A strict diet free from nuts involves the avoidance of any tree nuts and seeds such as:
- Brazil nuts
- Macadamia nuts
An individual’s chance of being allergic to nuts increases if other family members are allergic.
A note about peanuts ‘arachis hypogaea’
The most widespread ‘nut’ allergy is to peanuts. The peanut is not actually a nut but a member of the legume (bean) family. Other members of this family include soya beans, lentils and garden peas, however, if you are allergic to peanuts you do not have a greater chance of being allergic to any other legume. Peanuts are the seeds which line up in their pods and are grown in the ground rather than on trees, and so are sometimes referred to as ground nuts. If a reaction occurs, such as tingling in the mouth, emergency medical help should be sought immediately.
If you have a nut allergy, care should be taken with all foods but special attention should be give to…
- Oils: blended oils, unrefined or gourmet peanut, arachis, groundnut oils etc
- Preserves: peanut butter, chestnut purée, chocolate & hazelnut spread, praline spread, sweet mincemeat, etc
- Breakfast cereals: nut cornflakes, fruit & fibre, muesli, etc
- Vegetarian products: nut loaf, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian sausages, etc
- Confectionery: nuts, nougat, nut brittle, halva, Snickers, Topic, Bounty, Liquorice Allsorts, pralines, Florentines, Toblerone, etc
- Biscuits: almonds, coconut biscuits, macaroons, etc
- Desserts: nut yogurt, nut ice cream, cakes, puddings containing nuts, etc
- Some Asian-style sauces such as satay
- Cakes: Christmas cake, fruit cake, stollen, marzipan, etc
- Dips & sauces: pesto, waldorf dressing, etc
One of the difficulties with allergies is that it’s impossible to tell if a reaction will be worse upon subsequent exposures. Even if the reaction was mild initially, a potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis reaction may happen upon further exposure. Symptoms of an allergic reaction could include:
- Closing up of the throat
- Tingling feeling in the lips or mouth
- Severe asthma
- Itching or swelling in the mouth
- Nausea or vomiting
- Faintness and unconsciousness
If an allergic reaction to nuts is suspected, make an appointment with your GP or NHS allergy clinic to confirm diagnosis.
Things to watch out for
There are various theories about why peanut allergies are increasing. Peanuts and peanut oil are inexpensive ingredients, so they’re used in a huge number of processed foods, such as cookies, cakes, breakfast cereals, breads and confectionery as well as takeaways and fast food, and this increased use might be partly to blame.
Seeds: many people with peanut or tree nut allergies are able to eat seeds without any problems. Both coconut and pine nuts are seeds rather than nuts, and the majority of nut allergic people can eat them, although always check with your GP if unsure.
Food labelling: labelling has now improved and ingredients that pose a potential allergy risk must be highlighted or printed in bold so consumers may easily recognise them.
Pregnancy: whether you should avoid consuming nuts during pregnancy is debated. Unless you have a strong history of allergies, such as asthma or eczema in either of the parents’ families, you should be safe to continue eating peanuts. Some evidence suggests that eating a small amount during pregnancy can actually help prevent allergies developing but always check with your GP if unsure.
Whether you are allergic to nuts or just don’t like them, we have stacks of recipes that are nut-free – here are a few to get you started:
Find more recipes in our nut-free collection
Frequently asked questions about labelling:
This article was last reviewed on 28 June 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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