NEWSFLASH: Since writing this blog post, I think I have had an allergic reaction to chestnut…
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.
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?