Coconut Allergy Confusion: Is Coconut Really a Tree Nut?

Confused about coconut allergy and whether you need to avoid coconut if you have a tree nut allergy? It’s not surprising if you are. After all, coconut even has the word nut in it. It grows on a palm “tree”. So is coconut really a tree nut? And if it is classed as a tree nut, why do we use coconut ingredients in our allergy-friendly recipes?

Whole coconut and coconut flesh in wooden bowl with text "coconut & nut allergy - is coconut really a tree nut?"

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Clearing up the coconut confusion

We have a lot of allergy-friendly recipes on our website that are tree nut free, but which do contain coconut ingredients. Likewise, lots of the delicious store-bought allergy-friendly cookies and treats featured on our website contain coconut too. This is probably very confusing to many of our our US readers, where coconut is included in the definition of tree nuts for allergen labelling. So while there are many articles about the coconut/tree nut issue elsewhere, we believe it’s important to clear up confusion for our readers too.

Tree nut labelling laws around the world

You might be surprised to know that coconut isn’t actually considered a tree nut allergen in many parts of the world. In fact, it isn’t even included in the top allergens in many countries. The US is an exception to the rule.

Australia and New Zealand

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires Mandatory Declaration of the 10 top food allergens on food labels. For tree nuts, this includes almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut. pistachio and walnut. It does not include coconut.1

The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy also notes that coconut allergy is relatively rare and the chances of someone who is allergic to tree nuts or peanuts also being allergic to coconut is low.2

Canada

Coconut is not a priority food allergen in Canada. Health Canada states that coconuts are “not considered tree nuts for the purposes of food allergen labelling in Canada and are not usually restricted from the diet of someone allergic to tree nuts. A coconut is a seed of a fruit“.3

United Kingdom

The UK Food Standards Agency does not regard coconut as a nut. It does not require coconut to be emphasised in ingredients lists like other allergens.4

Allergy UK’s fact sheet on tree nut allergies includes almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts macadamia pecan, pistachio. walnut and shea nut (although shea nut allergy risk is regarded as low). It does not include coconut. The fact sheet describes coconut as the fruit (seed) of the coconut palm. Allergy UK also expressly states that coconut is “not from the tree nut family” and does “not need to be avoided if you have a tree nut allergy”.5

United States

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology also notes that “[a]lthough the Food and Drug Administration labels coconut as a tree nut, the vast majority of tree nut-allergic individuals also tolerate coconut without difficulty, since coconut is not truly a nut, but rather a fruit.6

Despite this, the Food and Drug administration in the US still includes coconut as a tree nut for food allergy labelling laws (under section 201(qq)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act).7

It isn’t clear why the FDA has decided to list coconut as a tree nut, when other countries don’t .In fact, in 2019 the coconut industry in the US started a campaign to remove coconut from the list of top allergens.

Who is right – what exactly is a coconut?

In the words of Da Coconut Nut song, made popular by Filipino group Smokey Mountain:

“The coconut nut is a giant nut
If you eat too much, you’ll get very fat
Now, the coconut nut is a big, big nut
But this delicious nut is not a nut”

Lyrics by Ryan Cayabyab © Good Soldier Services Limited

Coconut is the fruit or seed of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera), which is a member of the palm tree family. You might have heard the coconut fruit referred to as a “drupe“. In botanic terms, it is quite different to a tree nut. Fresh green coconuts have green fleshy fruit around a hard inner seed. That hard shelled seed is the familiar brown coconut with the white coconut flesh inside.

Fresh coconuts on coconut palm and split coconut wit glass of coconut milk with text "coconut & nut allergies - Is coconut really a tree nut?"

Coconut in “free from” products

Outside of the US, many allergy-friendly and “free from” brands use coconut as an ingredient. This is not an error. It is just due to the inconsistencies in allergen labelling in different countries.

Companies like Orgran (who make a range of great allergy-friendly snacks) use coconut ingredients in some products, despite all being labelled as “nut free”. For example, Orgran’s Amaretti Biscotti contain coconut as an ingredient. Because coconut isn’t a nut. It isn’t a requirement to list coconut on allergen statements in Australia. However, the ingredients list will still specify coconut as a general ingredient.

Of course, products sold in the US will need to comply with US labelling laws regarding allergens, including coconut.

Do you need to avoid coconut if you have a tree nut allergy?

This is a question to ask your own allergy specialist.

If you have a history of allergic symptoms to coconut or have been advised by your allergist to avoid it, you should definitely continue to do so. Coconut allergy – whether coconut is called a tree nut or not – is something to take very seriously.

But if you are simply avoiding coconut or products that may contain coconut because you are allergic to a another type of tree nut and the FDA classes coconut as a tree nut too, then it might be worth bringing this up with your allergy specialist at your next appointment. You may discover that you don’t actually need to avoid coconut, which could open up a lot of different food options.

References and more information about coconut allergy

For more information coconut allergy and tree nuts, see the following allergy resources we’ve referred to in this post:

*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.

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