Is Coconut a Tree Nut?

Does Your Tree Nut Allergy Apply to Coconuts?

Group of friends sipping coconut with straw
Jon Feingersh/Iconica/Getty Images

Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) are tree nuts and may be a concern for people who have allergies to other nuts. However, just because you are allergic to other tree nuts like cashews or almonds doesn't necessarily mean that you also have an allergy to coconut.

Coconut allergies are uncommon. Yet, the challenge is that coconut is found in many foods, so it's important to understand whether or not you're allergic to it.

Does a Tree Nut Allergy Apply to Coconut?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies coconuts as tree nuts. Foods containing coconut are required to be labeled with "contains tree nuts" under the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).

The real question is whether coconut is a dangerous food for those with tree nut allergies. And the answer is, "It depends." Allergies to coconuts are believed to be far less common than allergies to cashews and almonds (two particularly allergenic tree nuts).

Botanically, coconuts are most closely related to other palms and betel nuts. They come from coconut palm trees and are not closely related to most other tree nuts.

While botanical relationships are not the only factor that determines whether two foods will be cross-reactive, foods that are close biological relatives often share related allergenic proteins. A good example of this phenomenon are cashews and pistachios.

These are two closely related plants that contain similar proteins. People who are allergic to one of these nuts are often allergic to both.

There is some evidence of cross-reactivity between coconuts and hazelnuts and between coconuts and walnuts. One study also found an association between coconut allergies and those to almonds and macadamias.

While there are associations, the likelihood of also having a coconut allergy remains considerably low. For example, one study examined children with peanut and tree nut allergies. The results concluded that these children were more likely to be sensitive to sesame than coconut.

Testing for a Coconut Allergy

What does this mean about coconut's role in your diet if you've been diagnosed with another tree nut allergy? First of all, try to avoid coconut after a positive allergy test to another tree nut. It's best to err on the side of caution because there is a possibility of cross-reactivity and tree nut reactions can be severe.

If you're allergic to another tree nut and are interested in whether coconut could be part of your diet, discuss further testing with your allergist. This is a good idea even if you have a history of eating coconut without problem. Your allergist can let you know whether your other test results and history make additional testing or a food challenge a reasonable next step.

How to Avoid Coconut

To avoid coconut in foods, you need to be a food label detective. Coconut is present in many foods as a derivative in the form of coconut oil, rice, sugar, water, cream, milk, and milk powder.

It’s also present in rum, candy, and many desserts.

You’ll find many coconut-derived ingredients in soaps and shampoos as well. Some people may have skin sensitivity (or allergic contact dermatitis) to coconut oil from these products. Therefore, if you feel it may be causing itchy or irritated skin, keep an eye out for ingredients and alcohols in beauty products that may be derived from coconut.

Sources:

Polk BI, Dinakarpandian D, Nanda M, Barnes C, Dinakar C. Association of Tree Nut and Coconut Sensitizations. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2016;117(4):412-416. doi: 10.1016/j.anai.2016.07.023.

Stutius LM, et al. Characterizing the Relationship Between Sesame, Coconut, and Nut Allergy in Children. Pedatr Allergy Immunol. 2010;21(8):1114-8. doi:10.1111/j.1399-3038.2010.00997.x.

Continue Reading