Should a nut allergic person avoid chestnuts?

The subject of chestnuts cropped up a number of times over the Christmas festivities with regards to the obligatory turkey stuffing, which often contains chestnuts. Brussels sprouts are also often served with flaked chestnut. This led to the obvious question, are chestnuts actually nuts? They aren’t on my list of buzz words to avoid at all cost, but probably would signal some alarms if I saw it on an ingredients list. It doesn’t seem to appear in many foods in the UK.

Which is the real nut?

What are chestnuts?

The definition in dictionary.com goes like this: “any of the several deciduous trees constituting the genus Castanea, of the beech family, having toothed, oblong leaves and bearing edible nuts enclosed in a prickly bur, and including C. dentata (American chestnut), which has been virtually destroyed by the chestnut blight, C. sativa (European chestnut), C. mollissima (Chinese chestnut), and C. crenata (Japanese chestnut).” It also includes the fruit and wood of the tree and the horse chestnut or conker tree.

You can have anaphylaxis to nuts and tree nuts and cross reactivity; some people can be allergic to just one nut type. I am allergic to peanuts for instance, which itself isn’t actually a nut at all, it’s a legume which is in the same family as peas and lentils. However, I’m also allergic to most of the other nuts, including pine nuts, but interestingly not almonds. The protein make-up is very similar which is why the body treats them the same.

What are nuts?

I found a very easy to understand definition on Wikipedia “Nuts are a composite of the seed and the fruit, where the fruit does not open to release the seed. Most seeds come from fruits, and the seeds are free of the fruit, unlike nuts such as hazelnuts, hickories, chestnuts and acorns, which have a stony fruit wall and originate from a compound ovary.” It’s worth reading this definition in more detail. I hadn’t realised for instance that most nuts in the culinary sense, such as peanuts, brazil nuts etc. aren’t nuts at all. Read the Wiki nuts definition here.

It descibes how chestnuts are part of the Fagaceae family of trees, along with beech and oak.

Are you all still with me here?

Allergy to chestnuts is rare but it can cause serious reactions in rare cases.
Read more on the Anaphylaxis Campaign website. They advise caution even where conkers are concerned for someone with peanut allergy. I’ve never had a reaction to conkers despite many playground battles. The difficulty is that no two people are the same – we all have slightly different reactions to different foods. All very confusing.

Should a person with a peanut allergy exercise caution, even though chestnuts aren’t directly related to other nuts? For now caution is the buzz word but on my next visit to my allergy dietician I might ask them if they have time to test me for chestnut as well as lupin just to be on the safe side.

And finally, water chestnuts…

Thank goodness, the Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is most definitely NOT a nut, it’s a grass-like sedge grown for its edible corms. It grows in marshes, underwater in the mud, so stir frys are safe – water chestnuts are our friends.

You can’t blame restaurants for panicking and refusing to serve you the tasty christmas stuffing because they think it might be a nut and are terrified of making you ill. This happened to me a few times and to be honest I’m not sure if I have eaten chestnuts or whether I’m allergic to them or not. I’m just always pleased when people are clearly listening to what I’ve told them and advising me accordingly.

So, the answer to the question is probably, yes, you should exercise caution where chestnuts are concerned. No restnuts choasting on your open fire – not till you’ve been teste anyway, and know you’re in the all clear. What do they taste like anyway? Are they nice? Are they nutty? Anyone out there with a chestnut allergy?

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About Ruth

Ruth works freelance as a copywriter and writes the What Allergy blog to share information with people who have allergies, eczema, asthma and food intolerances. http://www.whatallergy.com was voted in the top 5 allergy blogs and Ruth also judges regularly for the FreeFrom Food Awards and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. She runs a support group for the Anaphylaxis Campaign and also writes regularly for Exchange, The National Eczema Society quarterly magazine.

Comments

  1. The whole seed/nut business is really a nightmare, isn’t it…… I know that we tried to sort it a while ago on the FM site (http://www.foodsmatter.com/allergy_intolerance/peanut_treenut/articles/nuts_and_seeds.html) and honestly I think we ended up more confused than when we started….
    As you say, it is, like all allergies, a very individual matter and to be really sure you need to be challenge tested for each nut to be really sure. See http://www.foodsmatter.com/allergy_intolerance/peanut_treenut/research/identifying_allergy_type.html and http://www.foodsmatter.com/allergy_intolerance/management_treatment/research/optimal_work_up10_11.html

    • Thanks for the links Michelle – really useful, but like you say, the more the delve the more you get confused. Then you get cross reactivity as Alex mentions below where latex allergy sufferers can be allergy to foods such as kiwi, chestnuts, bananas… sounds too weird to be true.

  2. Ah, they’re delicious…. sorry. I wouldn’t describe them as nutty, actually. Quite a unique, distinctive flavour that it’s difficult to compare it with something else. I think most people with nut / peanut allergies are okay with chestnut. If I remember rightly, the people more likely to have a problem with it is people with latex allergies due again to cross-reactivity.

    Happy new year, Ruth!

    • Hi Alex, Happy New Year to you too! Yes I agree, it’s probably OK, and since writing my next door neighbour has informed me that a pie she cooked for us once had chestnut in it and I was fine! So I have eaten them! Despite my latex allergy I survived the chestnut challenge without even knowing it! The Anaphylaxis Campaign has to take a vey cautious line I suppose. You can never tell how weird our bodies can be in reacting to odd stuff.

  3. Jenny Benson says:

    Hi Ruth, A very interesting quandry. I have often wondered about chestnuts and believed them to be a fruit but have avoided them so far. Now the conker reference is definitely of interest because when my daughter was very young (nrly 10 with various allergies including peanuts & kiwi) she loved to collect conkers but once in our local park she suddenly came out in a rash on her face having just been collecting conkers. I mentioned it at our following visit to the allergy clinic but they dismissed the possibility of a cross-reaction. However, since that day we’ve always made sure she washes her hands after collecting conkers. Also, I believe pine nuts are a seed.
    We have a check-up on Friday so will raise the chestnut question with the doctor (even though it is now June and I don’t think we’ll be wanting to to eat roast chestnuts in Madrid with 30ºC+ temperatures!).

  4. My son is allergic to eggs, peanuts and a variety of tree nuts, but not brazils. He has never been tested for cashew or pistachio. My reason for being here is the question of pine nuts – he has always avoided them but I don’t know whether or not he actually needs to!

    • I do have a slight problem with pine nuts but everyone is different. It’s so hard to tell. The only way to really know is to try them (very riskyk) or get tested. One friend said she rubs a bit into the back of her childs neck to see if he might react. You could try that. I have a peanut allergy but am fine with almonds, but not so sure about pine nuts. It’s all so complex… Really you need to seek medical advice on this one. The other added problem is that nuts can be contaminated by other nuts – so just because almonds are OK for, doesn’t mean they are always safe because they are often stored i the same polace as peanuts. VERY hard to know.

  5. Every time I eat chestnuts I get really ill with symptoms such as severe vomiting and diarrhea. It happened a few times when I was a kid and I didn’t link it to the the chestnuts I collected and scoffed. Recently (in the last 2 years) I have eaten chestnuts twice and the same thing has happened. I didn’t believe it at first, but that second time i didn’t even eat the chestnuts, just ate the spinach around them and WHAM. Now i have never visited a doctor about this but i am seriously considering it now especially since i have just read that it could get worse without me knowing about it. i do not have any other nut allergy.

    • Chestnut allergy is very rare so you are very special. I would visit your doctor and look out for baked goods and pastry, especially at this time of year. Even sprouts can be done with chestnuts. You’re right too about reactions getting worse – the body learns well that for some unknown reason it doesn’t like chestnuts in your case. Stay safe!

  6. Bpurpleb001 says:

    I have tried different nuts and products that aren’t considered ‘nuts’ like coconuts and pistachios, which are considered one seeded drupes according to the info I’ve found. I’m just as allergic to them as I am to pecans, walnuts, hazel nuts, almonds, cashews and those pesky peanuts (I know, I know a peanut isn’t a true nut but I’ve developed an allergy to them in adulthood). I’ve even tried oils made from exotic ‘nuts’ like Argon oil. Did a skin test on the inside of my arm near the elbow and almost immediately developed a welt in that area. I washed it off quickly but still developed itching all over my body. My ears became hot and bright red and my tongue began to swell a little. All of this while benedryl was coursing through my body. Jumped into luke warm shower to wash my whole body and that helped. Strange thing is I tried shea butter which is derived from the shea nut and I had no problems. Go figure.

  7. Hi, i have a severe allergy to peanuts and hazilnuts and suffer anaphylaxis to pine nuts but am fine with walnuts and almonds (not 100% sure about any other nuts and too scared to try). I am spending Christmas in the UK this year and it seems i can’t escape chestnuts. The smell of them roasting doesn’t make my throat and eyes itchy like
    peanuts and im dying to try them…are they more similar/closer related to walnuts or hazilnuts or another nut, or none?

    • I think I can eat chestnuts (have had them in a pie by mistake and had no reaction), although I too have a peanut allergy. I don’t seem to be allergic to almonds either – it’s all very complex and no two people are exactly the same. You do need to be really careful. It could be VERY risky. I couldn’t possibly advise you to just try some, but I wonder if you could see whether they might irritate your skin? or rub a tiny bit on your lip? Just be VERY, VERY carefull… not worth ruining your Christmas over. I do agree though – they smell amazing, whilst peanuts smell like pure evil poison and make my throat shudder just from a whiff. Urgh!

  8. What about horse chestnuts?
    I want to buy this hydrafirm eye and lip gel with horse chestnut extract in it, but the word “chestnut” worries me.
    Please help!

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