Q: Sam ~ We recently found out our son has multiple food allergies, including tree nuts and dairy. A lot of the coconut products say “contains tree nuts.” Are these products safe for our son, or should we avoid them?
A: Alisa ~ I cannot advise whether or not coconut in particular is safe for your son, but you should check with the diagnosing physician as they should be able to tell you … assuming that they did test for coconut.
After the FDA passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) several years ago, they opted to add coconut to their list of tree nuts. Therefore all products with coconut must make it recognizable or specifically note that tree nuts are found in the product, even though the coconut is a fruit (botanically speaking it is a drupe, and not a true nut at all) and studies have shown no correlation between common tree nut allergies (almond, walnut, pecan, etc.) and coconut allergies …
In fact, a study was recently reported in the Journal of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology (Dec 2010) to characterize the relationship between sesame, coconut, and nut allergies in children. The researchers from the Children’s Hospital Boston, MA found that children with histories of both peanut and tree nut reaction were more likely to have a history of sesame reaction, but children with a sensitization or allergy to peanuts or tree nuts were not more likely to be sensitive or allergy to coconut.
In other words, the odds that a child with a tree nut allergy also has a coconut allergy are no greater than the odds that a child without a tree nut allergy has a coconut allergy. This is why it is essential that your child is tested for coconut specifically. Though your son could in fact be allergic to coconut, many children with tree nut allergies are able to consume coconut-based dairy alternatives without a problem.
So why does the FDA require coconut to be labeled as a tree nut? No idea. Botanically speaking, the coconut is actually a drupe (a fruit), not a nut.
Keep in mind, the confusion doesn’t just lie with coconut. According to the Food Allergy Initiative, the following are uncommon, additional tree nuts that require disclosure by U.S. law, however, the risk of an allergic reaction to these nuts is unknown: beechnut, ginkgo, shea nut, butternut, hickory, chinquapin, lychee nut, and pili nut. The FDA has also also required some companies to list butternut squash (the fruit of a tree) as a tree nut in the past for food allergen labeling purposes. It seems, at this point, any food with the term “nut” in its name is required to be identified a tree nut.
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.