The growing popularity of nut-free schools has raised some questions as to what exactly “nut-free” entails. Peanuts and well-known tree nuts like cashews and walnuts are a given, but what about coconuts? Here’s a simple answer.
Generally, coconut is allowed at nut-free schools because although the FDA lists coconut as a tree nut, it usually does not typically need to be restricted in the diets of people with nut allergies. Some people do have allergies to coconut, so always ask the school before bringing a coconut.
This can be somewhat confusing considering the fact that “coconut” has the word “nut” in it. But since coconuts are actually a type of fruit, they are allowed in nut-free schools.
More About Coconuts
Coconuts are notoriously tricky to classify. They’re sweet and are eaten like fruits, but have a hard outer shell and need to be cracked open in the same way that a nut does.
From a botanical perspective, fruits are defined as the reproductive parts of a plant’s flowers. This definition includes nuts, which are a type of closed seed. Plants can, however, also be classified by their culinary uses. For example, rhubarb is technically a vegetable but is sweet like a fruit. On the other hand, tomatoes are botanically a fruit but have the mild, unsweet flavor common to and normally associated with vegetables.
A coconut falls under a subcategory of fruit known as drupes. Drupes are a fleshy fruit with thin skin and a hard central pit containing the seed. Some examples of drupes include plums, cherries, almonds, or olives. This includes a variety of fruits, such as peaches, pears, walnuts, and almonds.
This can be confusing, that certain types of drupes and nuts can be classified as tree nuts (like walnuts). By definition, a tree nut is any fruit or nut that grows on a tree, so coconut is a type of tree nut that falls under the subcategory of a drupe.
Can People Who are Allergic to Nuts Eat Coconut?
Since there is some crossover between classifications of fruits and nuts, you still might be wondering whether it is safe for a person with a nut allergy to consume coconut. The most common tree nut allergies are to almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts, while allergic reactions to coconuts are much rarer.
Though coconuts are technically tree nuts, they’re classified as a fruit. As a result, they lack many of the proteins that people with tree nut allergies are sensitive to. That being said, many people who have tree nut allergies can safely eat coconut without having an allergic reaction.
These classifications can get complicated and confusing, however, because nut-free schools aim to ban peanuts, which technically aren’t a nut. Peanuts are a legume and are in the same family as peas, beans, and lentils. But the proteins in peanuts are similar in structure to those in tree nuts, and it is this similar protein structure that causes people to often be allergic to both of these.
Have any Nut-Free Schools Banned Coconuts?
Although the rules and regulations of a nut-free school will vary from one location to another, nut-free schools generally do not disallow coconuts on the premises. This is because kids with tree nut allergies can, but normally do not, exhibit an allergy to coconut as well. Despite growing on a tree, coconut allergies are pretty rare.
Therefore, coconuts usually aren’t included in a tree nut ban, but it would be wise to ask because many coconut products are made in facilities with tree nuts. Remember to be cautious and check the labels on your food.
Are Nut-Free Schools Effective?
While it is becoming increasingly more common for schools to ban nuts in the school at all, a lot of schools simply have peanut-free tables in place in their cafeterias to better monitor students. A recent study on peanut-free policies in schools discovered that schools with school-wide peanut-free policies actually had higher levels of epinephrine used for the treatment of peanut and tree nut-related anaphylaxis.
Interestingly enough, the schools that just had specific peanut-free tables in the cafeteria had lower epinephrine use. Middle schools and high schools with peanut-free classrooms also had lower rates of epinephrine use, but this was not seen in elementary schools.
There are limited studies on why schools with peanut-free policies have higher epinephrine use, and more need to be conducted to draw any definite conclusions in these situations. Here are some possible explanations as to why this is the case.
Accidentally Bringing Nuts into School: It is possible for children to accidentally bring foods with peanuts in them to school. In order for a school to be truly “peanut-free,” school staff members would be required to inspect every food item brought onto the premises for peanuts. Realistically, most K-12 schools do not have the resources or capacity for such a procedure to occur every single day for every child attending the school.
Parents of children without food allergies may also not be properly checking or know how to read food labels. In these cases, it is very possible that a parent might send their child to school with food with peanuts by mistake. For example, one of the children in the study with a known walnut allergy had a reaction to a cookie he brought from his own home that contained walnuts.
A False Sense of Security: In addition to this, the school staff might have a false sense of security due to the peanut and tree nut policy. Because they have the policies in place, school staff may not check food for peanuts as often or as thoroughly and may feel that their policy alone lowers risk. In these cases, school staff members may also have lower suspicion of a food allergy reaction when a student starts to complain of symptoms.
On the other hand, we can infer that schools with just peanut-free tales and classrooms instead of school-wide policies have a lower usage of epinephrine due to the environmental factors being much more controllable, and the amount of food for school staff to inspect is much more manageable and realistic.