29 September 2004

Suffering from peanut allergies?

In this article, products that contain peanuts and peanut oil, and how anyone with a peanut allergy can avoid coming into contact with these allergenic products, is considered.

In this article, products that contain peanuts and peanut oil, and how anyone with a peanut allergy can avoid coming into contact with these allergenic products, is considered. The information is based on a paper published recently by Du Plessis and Steinman* in Current Allergy & Clinical Immunology.

Peanut-containing products
Besides the obvious use of peanuts as staple foods in some countries and as a pleasant snack for those individuals who do not develop allergic reactions to this legume, peanuts are also used in a bewildering number of processed foods.

These include:

a) Peanut oil
Peanut oil is extracted from peanut kernels and is widely used in food preparation and food processing. Foods fried in peanut oil are the mainstay of oriental cooking, so if you suffer from a peanut allergy you probably know that you should avoid going to Chinese or Thai restaurants.

However, even non-oriental restaurants may use peanut oil for frying chips. This is doubly dangerous because even if you avoid eating fried chips, the deep-fat fryer at a restaurant could have been used to fry other peanut-containing foods such as vegetarian nut cutlets and may contaminate the next batch of food that is fried in the same fryer. It is, therefore, also essential to avoid health and vegetarian restaurants if you are allergic to peanuts.

b) Peanut flour
Another ingredient that is used in many processed foods is peanut flour, which is obtained by grinding the peanut kernels. Peanut flour is usually used to increase the bulk or viscosity of manufactured foods.

c) Hydrolysed vegetable protein
Protein which is extracted from plant sources such as soy beans and peanuts is extensively used in processed foods ranging from bread to sausages to either improve the taste or reduce the quantity of meat that has to be used. Avoid all foods labelled “Hydrolysed vegetable protein”.

d) Peanut butter
Most people who suffer from a peanut allergy will know to avoid peanut butter, but what is not as evident is the use of peanut butter in restaurants to thicken sauces, to glaze meat or as an ingredient in cakes and sweets.

Always ask the chef, not the waiter, at a restaurant if he/she has used any form of peanut in the dishes you intend ordering.

e) Other nuts
Any food that contains other more expensive nuts (Brazil, almond, walnut, cashew, macadamia), may be ‘diluted’ with ground peanuts and can pose a threat. Also be vigilant when you buy other whole nuts because peanuts are often added to mixed nut snacks. Play it safe when flying and don’t eat the packet of nuts served with the drinks – it could contain peanuts.

f) “Mandalone” nut
The “Mandalone” nut is made from peanut flour which is deflavoured, decoloured, pressed into moulds, reflavoured, coloured and sold as a substitute for other nuts (walnuts, almonds and pecan nuts). These ‘surrogate’ nuts are hard to distinguish from the real thing, so rather avoid all nuts if you have a severe peanut allergy.

Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
Peanut oil has a special property - it enhances uptake of other compounds when applied to skin. It is, therefore, often used in pharmaceutical products such as eczema creams and over-the-counter medicines and products, including nipple creams which could sensitise a baby during breastfeeding.

Some vitamin and mineral tablets and drops may also contain traces of peanut oil. Also be careful if you go for health treatments like aromatherapy because peanut oil is often used as the base for the essential oils the therapist massages into your skin. Ask the aromatherapist to use grape seed oil instead.

Other contact routes

  • Inhalation or contact with the skin of any peanut-containing food or product can cause allergic reactions.
  • Skin contact with someone who has eaten or handled peanuts, e.g. kissing or even shaking hands, may trigger a reaction.
  • Mother’s milk is sadly one route by which your baby can be sensitised. Exclusive breastfeeding is no guarantee that your child will not develop peanut allergy. Because breastfeeding is such a valuable gift to your child, mothers who suspect that their children may be sensitive to peanuts, should scrupulously avoid eating or handling any food or cosmetic (nipple cream) that may contain peanuts.

Rays of hope
If you or your family suffer from peanut allergy the outlook may look bleak, but there are some positive developments and findings that should give you hope.

Firstly, about 22% of children will outgrow their peanut allergy, especially if their reaction was mainly confined to the skin, if tests showed a mild level of allergy and if the first reaction they developed was not serious (anaphylaxis).

Secondly, the new South African Labelling Regulations, which will hopefully be published soon, will make it mandatory for food manufacturers to clearly indicate if a specific food contains peanut or not.

In the past, food manufacturers tended to label nearly all their products as ‘May contain traces of peanut’ to protect themselves against potential litigation. Foods that did not contain even traces of peanut were labelled this way if they had been produced in factories that also manufactured peanut-containing foods. This practice has restricted the variety of foods available to peanut allergy sufferers enormously.

The new Labelling Regulations will require food manufacturers to have their products analysed for the presence of peanuts. Only if the test detects peanuts will the label warn consumers about this potential danger. This should make the lives of individuals with peanut allergy less complicated and permit them to eat a wider variety of foods with greater safety. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

Reference: Du Plessis, K, Steinman, H (2004). Practical aspects of adverse reactions to peanut. Current Allergy & Clinical Immunology, Vol 17, No 1, 10-14.


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies. obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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