If you or someone in your family was recently diagnosed with a tree nut allergy, grocery shopping may seem suddenly like an all-day event. Reading ingredient labels takes time, and it can be confusing to know what's safe and what's off-limits.
One question I get asked often is about coconuts. It has the word nut in it, so is it safe? And if it is safe, why does it sometimes say on ingredient labels "contains nuts (coconut)".
The Food Allergen Labeling And Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that all packaged foods in the US, including domestic and imported foods, are required to clearly state when it contains one of the Big 8 food allergens (milk, wheat, eggs, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, crustacean shellfish). Read all about it here.
Some foods don't require this kind of information, such as raw fruits, veggies and meat, and highly refined oils.
You may also see on food labels a statement like "This product was manufactured in a facility that also processes tree nuts". While this information is certainly helpful for consumers, it is purely voluntary. Companies are not required to include this type of warning, and this warning does not give a good sense of the actual risk of cross-contact with your allergen. I always advise clients to avoid foods that have this type of warning if it references their allergen.
What is a Tree Nut?
The Food & Drug Administration publishes a list of all the nuts that they consider "tree nuts". If a product contains any of these foods, the company is required to list it clearly in their ingredient label. In addition, the company must specify the type of tree nut, because some people may be allergic to one type of nut, and can safely eat another type of nut.
This list contains such classic nuts like almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and yes, coconut. Read the full list here.
Apparently there is quite the controversy surrounding the coconut. Most botanists would classify coconuts as a fruit, specifically a one-seeded drupe (other drupes include plums, cherries, and almonds). A drupe has 3 layers, and coconuts meet that definition.
On the other hand, a nut is defined by botanists as having a shell and a seed, and coconuts ALSO meet that definition. But, a more technical definition of a nut includes that as a nut ripens, it splits open to release their seeds. Coconuts don't do that. For that reason, most botanists classify coconuts as a fruit, not a true nut like almonds and walnuts.
It seems like coconuts may be such a special and unique food (and tasty!) that the debate will continue. Regardless, in 2006, the FDA added coconut to the list of 'tree nuts'.
Are coconuts safe to eat with a tree nut allergy?
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, while there are some documented cases of coconut allergy, most people who are allergic to tree nuts can safely tolerate coconuts.
Talk to your allergist before adding coconut to your diet. Depending on your type and severity of tree nut allergy, your allergist may recommend avoiding it.