You may have heard it said that any food has the potential to cause an allergic reaction – and this is quite true. If you peruse the vast body of medical literature on food allergies, you will find cases published of anaphylaxis and allergy to foods rarely thought of as being triggers – including goji berries, aubergine, cabbage, persimmon, and even lettuce. By this measure, any food, pretty much, can be reasonably described as a potential food allergen.
But when it comes to EU labelling regulations, it is a designated set of 14 foods and food groups that are considered the most commonly problematic. It is these which must be highlighted – typically in bold or CAPITALS – within the ingredients lists of foods and drinks, in order to warn consumers, and named on request when used in non-pre packed foods and meals prepared in-house.
Those 14 foods and food groups are:
- celery and celeriac
- cereals containing gluten
- tree nuts
- sesame seed
- sulphites/sulphur dioxide
An important point to make is that where there are various types of allergen, most of the above are all-inclusive. For instance:
- cereals containing gluten – includes all types, such as wheat, spelt, barley, rye and oats
- eggs – includes all types, such as hen, duck and
- milk – includes all types, such as cow and
- fish – includes all types, such as tuna, salmon, cod and
However, one important other category is not an exhaustive umbrella category. Tree nuts include only eight tree nuts in the grouping. They are:
- brazil nut
Any food that may be considered a nut culturally or which may include the term ‘nut’ in its name and which is not among the above eight and which is not ‘peanut’ (one of the 14 independently) is not a food allergen as defined by the legislation, even though it may well be one in a medical sense.
Let’s look at some of these individually.
Perhaps the most important of the so-called nuts which are not on the named list of nuts.
Pine nuts (or pine kernels) are allergens to some people, although pine nut allergy isn’t as common as peanut or tree nut allergy. Most with pine nuts can tolerate other nuts; and vice versa. There may be some cross-reactivity between pine nuts and peanuts, and pine nuts and almonds, but this is not thought to be significant.
Although they will not be highlighted as allergens on labelling, they should be included in any list of ingredients.
The main use for pine nuts is in Italian pesto sauce, although some cheaper ready-made brands may not use them. Many on-shelf pestos contain tree nuts in addition to pine nut (which often catches out people allergic to them), as well as other allergens such as egg, milk and even sesame. Remember that a “nut free” claim does not imply “pine nut free” . Pesto recipes can change regularly due to pine nut price fluctuations. Whatever your allergies – take care with pestos.
The bad news is that pine nut won’t be included in a ‘may contains’ advisory statement when there is a cross-contamination risk. If you know a manufacturer uses pine nuts in at least one of its products, there may be some theoretical risk. I don’t know of any chocolate firms which use pine nuts in products, but you may want to follow up with any brand such as Sada who produce pesto sauces, for instance.
Other potential sources are baked goods, desserts and puddings, nut mixes, stuffings, and sandwich fillings. The last example is true for Pret Manger, who use pine nuts in products such as their Chicken Pesto & Rocket Flat Bread. Pret regularly and unfairly draw criticism for this, because the company – quite correctly – does not declare pine nuts as allergens on their on-shelf labelling.
Although the shea fruit pulp is consumed in parts of Africa, it is the fat I butter which is produced from the shea nut that is familiar to most Westerners – mostly as an ingredient in cosmetics, but also used more discretely in some food products.
While it can alarm some newly diagnosed nut allergic people or parents, it is generally considered completely safe. There is no reliable shea nut allergy reaction recorded in the medical literature.
A very common food nowadays in the allergy environment, used widely in ‘free from’ foods such as dairy-free and vegan yoghurts, milks and cheeses, as well as more generally in baked goods, desserts, sweet, cereals, ice creams and some savoury foods such as curries.
Coconut allergy exists but is not common. There are no recommendations for people allergic to tree nuts to avoid coconut. Coconut comes from a palm-like tree, distantly related to the trees which produce tree nuts, and therefore cross-reactions are rare.
A spice, grated and added in small amounts to sweets and savouries, unrelated to tree nuts or other allergens on the so-called top 14 list, derived from a tree from which mace is also sourced, and not closely related to any other foodstuff. Whilst allergies to spices, particularly in those with seasonal hay fever, are possible, nutmeg is safe for the vast majority of people.
This is also an uncommon allergy, but it may be a problem for those with latex allergy, due to cross-reactions between the two, as they contain similar proteins called chitinases. Chestnut allergy can also exist independently, but there is little relation between chestnut allergy and allergies to tree nuts or indeed peanut.
A north east African nut, typically Moroccan, from which an oil is made which is used increasingly in skincare products. Many cosmetics brand s will warn on their labels that their products contain nuts, but when it is argan only it generally should be safe, as there are very few cases of allergy to argan on record.
What about legumes?
As we have seen, a nut or so-called nut is only a legally declarable allergen if it is named in the ‘ official’ list, and is not if it is not.
The same applies to legumes. Just because some legumes are declarable top-14 allergens, it does not mean all are .
These legumes are on the list –
peanut, lupin, soya.
These legumes are not on the list
– pea, chickpea, carob, lentil and others.
And what about seeds?
A number of foods which we commonly refer to as seeds are among the top 14, but most others are not.
These seeds are on the list –
These seeds are not on the list –
- sunflower and
The situation in America
It is worth considering this briefly, because there are variations between laws in America and the UK which impacts allergic visitors from one nation to the other and vice versa.
The US has 8 not 14 allergens for labelling purposes, and while ‘tree nuts’ is among them, the list of named nuts not only includes the 8 we have the UK/ EU, but also others, including coconut, shea nut, pine nut, chestnut and other obscure nuts and so-called nuts.
However, when it comes to the legumes, only peanuts and soya are on the US list – not lupin.
And when it comes to what we popularly term seeds, none are found on the US list, although there is intense pressure and lobbying for sesame to be added, which looks inevitable, given the seriousness of this allergy.
All this means that certain individuals have to be particularly careful.
If you have sesame allergy in the UK, you have to take extreme care when visiting the US, as this allergen will not yet be singled out as an allergen on labelling.
And if you have pine nut or coconut allergy in the US, you have to take extreme care in the UK as your allergens will not be highlighted as you might expect.
The botanical argument
It is questionable how valuable discussing botanical classifications of allergens is, because what is important when considering labelling is whether or not the food in question is or is not listed or incorporated in the top 14. That is, essentially, all you need to know. It is illegal to fail to highlight a top 14 allergen on pre-packed food – or to faiI to declare it on request in non prepacked – and it is also illegal to highlight an allergen which is not on the list.
It is confusing, and not essential, but to indulge any curiosity, first, we must define a fruit and then a seed.
So: a fruit is the component of a plant which carries the seed, and the seed is an embryonic plant within an outer covering. Edible seeds include cereal grains, legume seeds and tree nuts.
Botanically, a nut is a fruit composed of a usually edible seed encased in a hard shell. True nuts, then, include pecan and hazel (both on the top 14 list), and sweet chestnut and acorns (both not on the top 14 list).
All cereal grains, legumes and tree nuts are seeds, but not all seeds are nuts. Cereal grains and legumes are not nuts because they are not encased in a hard shell.
Brazils and poppy seeds are seeds contained in a pod or capsule which splits. True nuts don’t split – the seed and fruit are the same – so Brazils (on the top 14 listing as a tree nut) and poppy seeds (not on the list) are not botanically nuts.
Other non-nut ‘nuts’ include some drupes, where the seed is found in a shell that is encased within fleshy fruit. Drupes include almond, walnut and pecans (all top 14 allergens under tree nuts) and coconut and apricot (which are not top 14).
I did warn you it was confusing …
In summary, just because a foodstuff has ‘nut’ in its name, or is widely used as or perceived to be a nut, it does not mean it is necessarily a botanical nut, nor a nut which is named in the EU labelling regulations.
What’s relevant is whether or not your particular allergen is on the list of ‘top 14’ allergens.
If your allergens are included among them, then they will be highlighted or named, and your life will be easier.
But if they are not, you’ll just have to be that little bit more careful with label scrutiny and checking with brands, manufacturers and food service providers.
Who said the allergy life was easy?
Alex Gazzola, health writer specialising in allergy, authored the best-selling Coeliac Disease: What you need to know and other useful books. Follow his helpful blog on www.allergy-insight.com which also includes listings of free-from foods.
This article was first published in Allergy Newsletter No. 126 Summer 2019