College Diet Tips: Managing Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies

How college students can cope with nut allergies.

Photo: Thinkstock

There's no denying it: Peanuts and their BFF peanut butter are classic foods. Without peanuts, a jelly sandwich would seem incomplete and the Cracker Jacks in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" — an ode to America's favorite pastime — would get a stand alone shout out. However, for those who are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, the sentiment is simply non-existent.

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), an estimated 1.8 million Americans have an allergy to tree nuts, and peanut allergies are continually on the rise. Tree nuts include, walnut, almond, hazelnut, cashew, pistachio or Brazil nut. Peanuts, on the other hand, are considered a legume — like sunflower seeds — and do not fall into the tree nut category.

If you have allergies, you should always be on the lookout for red flag symptoms.

Common Colleges Snacks and Foods Have Nuts

As with anyone who is dealing with food allergies, one of the most common incidents for a college student to run the risk of contamination is when ingesting a pre-packaged food or a dish that is being prepared by someone else.

"Colleges are rising to the task of working closely with families and recognizing that for students at risk for food-induced allergy and anaphylaxis," said Mireille Schwartz, founder and chief executive officer of the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board. "The most important aspect of the management in the school setting is prevention."

FAAN points out that peanuts and tree nuts are common to a number or food items, including:

  • Salad dressings
  • Vegetarian burgers and meat substitutes
  • Pasta
  • Honey
  • Pie crust
  • Fish dishes
  • Pancakes
  • Barbeque sauce
  • Glazes and marinades
  • Sauces, such as hot sauce, pesto and gravy
  • Tuna and chicken salads

Cross-contamination during the manufacturing process is also not uncommon, therefore, making a number of pre-packaged goods off limits for those who are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

"No two allergic reactions are exactly the same so it’s best to be prepared even if an allergy has only resulted minor symptoms in your past, and you should strongly suspect an allergy if symptoms begin almost immediately after eating," Schwartz said. "Allergic reactions can cause swelling of the tongue and the throat, and allergies can trigger severe asthma attacks."

Don't Ignore Symptoms

If you have allergies, you should always be on the lookout for red flag symptoms, including angioedema (swelling of the face, throat, genital area, arms or legs); hives (itchy welts that resemble insect bites and may appear in small groups or over large areas of the skin); or anaphylaxis (a severe, multi-system reaction that can cause difficulty breathing, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and loss of consciousness).

"Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency," Schwartz said. "If you or a college friend experience: breathing difficulties, difficulty swallowing, fainting, loss of consciousness, or dramatic changes in heart rate — after exposure to a potential allergen, then call 911 or campus emergency services immediately. If you have been previously prescribed an auto injector of Epinephrine (commonly also referred to as an ‘Epi Pen’), then administer it at once."

Food allergy expert Michelle Risinger said, while managing a peanut or tree nut allergy in a college environment can be challenging, it is important for a student to take precautionary steps in order to avoid a run-in with a contaminant.

"The best advice is to be pro-active about your allergy," Risinger said. Make sure your roommates and floor mates in the dorms know about your condition and how to help you during an allergic reaction. She added, "Contact student services to establish their support from day one. Student services can often provide tremendous support."

Allergic Reactions: Serious, Not Comical

Risinger points out that, much to the disadvantage of those who suffer from true food allergies, movies like the characters in "Hitch" or "Monster-in-Law" have "popularized this idea by portraying an allergic reaction as comical and non-life-threatening."

"The most frequent response that food-allergic students receive is to encounter individuals who do not understand the true seriousness of an anaphylactic reaction and the very limited amount of time one might have before death occurs," Risinger said. "In a similar vein, it is also commonly misunderstood that even if a meal does not contain nuts in the ingredients, that does not mean it may not have picked up nut traces in the kitchen.

Risinger said in some restaurants and cafeterias, young people are not taken as seriously as adults when they explain their allergies. Therefore, it is important to clearly and adequately explain the scope of an allergy, including the dangers of cross contamination. If a student ever feels like an allergy is not being taken seriously, then it is important he or she ask to speak with a manager or school official.

And, again, if you have been diagnosed with peanut and tree nut allergies, then it is important to make people aware that there are distinct differences between the two, and it should never be assumed that an item is tree nut-free because it is peanut-free (and vice versa).

Quick Tips

  • Make roommates and kitchen staff in cafeterias or restaurants aware of your allergy in order to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Prepare an emergency plan in the event of a food allergy-related reaction.

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