Coconuts might be the tropical rage in the health community, but it’s a major source of confusion in the allergic community.
According to the FDA, coconut is a tree nut.
And, by all rights, a food that grows on trees and contains the word “nut” as its third syllable feels appropriately named.
…Unless you’re a botanist.
Then a coconut is actually a drupe – a fruit with a hard surrounding layer. And, technically, a coconut tree isn’t truly a tree either.
So why does the FDA consider coconuts tree nuts?
Well, in a nut shell – pardon the pun – it’s because the classification of plants by botanists is specific and complex, while the classification of tree nuts by the FDA is broad at best and not applicable at worst.
Tree nuts are considered to be one of the major allergens in the United States. This means that ingredients considered to be tree nuts, or derivatives of such, must be called out on food product labels for consumer transparency.
There are a number of items which are to be specified and defined as tree nuts by the FDA. The result is a perplexing list of species that have no food use, are not appropriate for food use, and stranger yet, the definition contains species that aren’t even tree nuts – like our humble friend the coconut.
Enter the conflict: if the coconut is not actually a tree nut, is it dangerous for individuals who are allergic to true tree nuts such as walnuts, pecans, and almonds?
What does the allergic community think?
Allergic individuals may find that they have an allergy to a specific food, but also encounter a similar reaction to other foods that have similar protein sequences. In other words, the body may mistake this similar food as the trigger food. This is called cross-reactivity.
For this reason, coconuts are included in the tree nuts category when it comes to allergens. While it is pretty common for true tree nut allergens to cross-react with one another, it is rare for true tree nut allergens to cross-react with coconut. However, the drupe decorates product ingredient labels as a major allergen. This can be pretty confusing for an individual trying to avoid true tree nuts.
Thankfully, coconuts, and other items defined as tree nuts, will always be called out on labels as the specific “nut”, rather than just listed as the general term “tree nut”. This is helpful for individuals who need to identify the actual source of a tree nut ingredient.
Always check with your allergist to discuss your individual needs. But coconut might just be back on the menu.