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 actually seeds rather than tree nuts. 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. Symptoms include rashes, hives, asthma attacks or inflammation and in severe cases and anaphylaxis, a severe, possibly life-threatening allergic reaction which can affect the airways, breathing or circulation.
A strict diet free from tree nuts involves the avoidance of the following:
- Brazil nuts
- Macadamia nuts
An allergy to one tree nut does not mean an allergy to all of the above, however, there is an increased likelihood of a reaction. Shea nuts are also a tree nut and increasingly used in confectionary in the form of a butter or oil, the amount of processing may minimise the shea nut protein present in the product but if you have a nut allergy you may choose to avoid such products.
An individual’s chance of being allergic to nuts increases if other family members are also 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.
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.
If a reaction occurs, such as tingling in the mouth, emergency medical help should be sought.
If you have a nut allergy, care should be taken with all foods but special attention is needed with the following items:
- Oils: blended oils, unrefined or gourmet oils etc
- Preserves: nut butter, chocolate & hazelnut spread, praline spread, sweet mincemeat, etc
- Breakfast cereals: nut cornflakes, fruit & fibre, muesli, etc
- Vegetarian products: nut loaf, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian sausages, nut milks etc
- Confectionery: nuts, nougat, nut brittle, halva, cereal bars as well as chocolate confectionary etc.
- Biscuits and cookies: 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.
Seeds: many people with peanut or tree nut allergies are able to eat seeds without any problems. Both coconut and pine nuts are actually seeds rather than nuts, and the majority of nut allergic people can eat them, although always check with your GP if you are unsure.
Food labelling: labelling has now improved and ingredients which pose a potential allergy risk must be highlighted or printed in bold or underlined 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, or have 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
This article was last reviewed on 15 July 2021 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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