Food allergies affect millions of people worldwide, and the “Big Nine” allergens are responsible for 90% of food allergies in the United States. Two of those nine, peanut and tree nut allergies sound similar—but they are not the same. Understanding the differences between peanut and tree nut allergies can help you help students manage their allergies and keep your school cafeteria safe for all.
What Are Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies?
Peanuts, despite their name, are not nuts—they are classified as legumes, which means they are part of the same family as beans, lentils and peas. In contrast, tree nuts are a diverse group of (actual) nuts that grow on trees, including almonds, walnuts, cashews, pine nuts and hazelnuts, among others. Just because someone is allergic to one type of tree nut doesn’t mean they’re allergic to them all, though it is more likely, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Additionally, although an allergy to tree nuts is not the same as an allergy to peanuts, there is some overlap there, too. Studies have shown that between 25% and 40% of individuals who are allergic to peanuts also react to at least one type of tree nut.
Is There a Risk of Cross-Contamination?
Many peanut products are processed in the same facilities as tree nuts, which means there is a high risk of cross-contamination. For this reason, allergists generally advise people who are allergic to tree nuts also to avoid peanuts because of the risk of cross-contact and cross-contamination between the two in food-processing facilities.
Coconut and Nutmeg: How Do They Fit in?
People with tree nut or peanut allergies may wonder if they must also avoid coconut and nutmeg. Although coconuts are not a botanical nut (they are actually classified as fruit), but the Food and Drug Administration recognizes coconut as a tree nut. While allergic reactions to coconut have been documented, most people who are allergic to tree nuts can safely eat coconut. Likewise, macadamia nuts, water chestnuts and pine nuts are named as nuts, but they are actually seeds—meaning they’re probably safe for those with tree nut allergies.
Although the name might be misleading, nutmeg is a spice that is derived from seeds, and is not a nut. It usually can be safely consumed by people with tree nut and peanut allergies. This is great news for adding that extra spice to chilis or stews!
Managing Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies in the Cafeteria
Strict avoidance of either tree nuts or peanuts (or both) is recommended to prevent potentially life-threatening reactions by students with food allergies. For more information on the protocol for handling allergic reactions in the cafeteria, check out our available Food Allergy Training courses.
Although peanut and tree nut allergies are part of the same group of “Big Nine” allergens, they are not the same. Allergies to both types of nuts can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening, and knowing the difference and what to do when you find yourself in a critical situation in the cafeteria is key!