Everything you need to know about coconut allergies, including what it is, what are symptoms of a coconut allergy, what treatment options are available, what to avoid, and how to stay safe.
Coconut allergies are classified under Tree Nut allergies according to the FDA. That is good news in that labeling in the US requires coconut to be listed as an ingredient.
Coconut is one of the more difficult allergies to live with due to how pervasive coconut has become in the food, beauty care products, and home cleaning products. They often include ingredients that are listed by their chemical name, which means they don’t have to make a label with a coconut warning.
While living with a coconut allergy can seem overwhelming and difficult, it isn’t insurmountable.
This article walks you through all aspects of what a coconut allergy is, what are the symptoms, how to diagnose, what to avoid, and how best to live with your coconut allergy.
- Coconut is a rare form of a tree nut allergy that affects a small percentage of people.
- Most people allergic to coconut are allergic to topical applications of coconut and coconut derived ingredients. Reactions to eating coconut are more rare but still happen.
- Over half of all reactions to coconut result in an anaphylactic reaction. This is a very serious allergy that you should see your doctor for creating an allergy action plan.
What are coconuts?
A coconut is the fruit of the coconut palm tree, Cocos nucifera from the Arecaceae Palm family, found all over the globe in warm, tropical environments. They aren’t actually a tree nut, or even a nut at all, despite the “nut” in the name.
The US FDA classifies a coconut as a tree nut allergy, so if you have tree nut allergies it is possible you could also be allergic to coconuts, but not always.
The coconut allergy is more rare than other tree nut allergies. According to Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor at the Icahan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, about 0.5% of people in the United States have a coconut allergy.
My own coconut allergy history has led me to learn how to do everything from making my own shampoo, making my own hand soap, and creating a hypoallergenic skincare routine.
If you are a fellow coconut allergic person, please leave a comment! I’d love to chat with you!
A coconut allergy is a response of the body’s own immune system thinking that the coconut proteins are a threat. This triggers an autoimmune response known as an allergic reaction.
These proteins include: Cocosin, a 14 kDa protein, and a 35 kDa protein.
When the body encounters the coconut protein, it stages a surge of IgE proteins and Mast Cells to counter the protein and attack the invader in the body.
This “attack” can manifest in several different ways, depending on the type of exposure. Everything from a rash to runny noses to full blown anaphylactic reactions can be caused by coconut.
Allergic reactions to eating coconut are more rare than contact reactions. So, it is possible that you are able to eat things with coconut in them, however, you might not be able to touch and use things with coconut.
In a recent study, over half of the documented allergic reactions to coconut were severe enough to qualify as an anaphylactic reaction. If you suspect you have a coconut allergy, it is imperative that you make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Additionally, some people can be allergic to the fat or sugar found in the coconut. Finally, many people can be allergic to the derivatives of coconut found in many skin care, bath, and beauty products.
Cross Reactions with Coconut
If you are allergic to coconut, it can cause some cross reactions with other allergens. Some of the most common include:
Most children and adults will develop an allergic reaction either immediately, a few minutes, or as long as a few hours after coming into contact with coconut. Remember, some people are so allergic that just touching or smelling coconut can cause a reaction.
A list of possible reactions includes:
- Swelling, itching, or irritation of the mouth, lips, tongue, or throat
- Swelling, itching, or irritation of the eyes
- Asthma attacks
- Eczema on the skin
- Hives, itching rash of the skin
- Nasal congestion
- Difficulty breathing
- Cramping and/or pain of the stomach or bowels
- Anaphylactic reactions
For some people, a life threatening reaction known as an anaphylactic reaction may occur after consuming, touching, or smelling coconut or coconut by-products. If this happens, please call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include:
- Swelling or tightening of the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or tightness
- Trouble swallowing
- Dizziness or fainting
- Low blood pressure
- Weak pulse
- Change of the normal coloring of the skin and in the mucous membranes (inner lips, gums, around the eyes, and in the nail beds)
- Light skin, check for signs of a dark blue tint in the mucous membranes
- Medium skin, check for signs of a gray-green tint in the mucous membranes
- Dark skin, check for signs of a gray or white tint in the mucous membranes
A diagnosis begins with sharing your history and suspicions with your doctor. They will ask about any symptoms experienced and the connection to exposure to coconut and coconut derived products.
An allergist is the most common doctor to diagnose a coconut allergy.
There are a few different allergy diagnostic tests to determine if you have a coconut allergy. Your doctor will know what test is best to determine what exactly you are allergic to. Common testing for coconut allergies include:
- Skin Prick Testing: Placing a small sample of the suspected allergen in a purified form into the top layer of skin with a small poke (not a needle) and watching for a reaction. The size and intensity of a reaction can indicate an allergy to coconut.
- Blood Tests: Collecting a small sample of blood sent to a lab to measure the levels of coconut-specific IgE antibodies. High levels of IgEs can suggest an allergy, but is not a full diagnosis. Blood testing is not always reliable.
- Oral Food Challenge: This is considered the gold standard for diagnosing a coconut allergy. Coconut is removed in all forms from the diet for 2 to 3 weeks and then is reintroduced under the supervision of your doctor. If a reaction occurs, it is likely to be a true allergen. Please note that it is only safe to do food challenging under the supervision of a doctor. Do not eat food you know you are allergic to.
There is no cure for coconut allergies, just good management of symptoms.
- Avoidance is the best defense.
If any anaphylactic reaction occurs, you should call 911 or your local emergency service immediately.
If you have had an anaphylactic reaction in the past, consider talking with your doctor about receiving an epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen).
Finally, it is important that you have a personalized allergy action place for what to do in case of an allergic reaction. Talk with your doctor to plan what you should do in various situations.
Possible treatment to help with management of allergies can include:
Learning how to read food labels is one of the most important things you can do after developing a coconut allergy. Always make sure that you read the entire label and not just quickly scan for coconut as ingredients can hide under different names.
Sometimes companies will place advisory statements on their label to say things such as, “May Contain” or “Produced in the same facility as…”. These are not required by law but are placed there at the discretion of the company. Talk with your doctor about whether you should avoid these food labels as well.
In general, I tend to avoid any and all food products that list my own allergies on these advisory statements. You never know if one day cleaning the machines, an allergen was totally washed away or not. I err on the side of caution with my health and suggest you do the same.
What to Avoid
When looking at a food label, make sure that the ingredient list does not contain any of the following items. The list of foods to avoid is long, and while I’ve done my best to include them all here, I am sure there are more being made and discovered each day. If you know of an allergy name that I’ve missed, write it in the comments below and I’ll be sure to add it to the list!
- Coconut milk
- Coconut water
- Coconut oil
- Coconut cream
- Coconut milk powder
- Coconut sugar
- Coconut amino acids
Hidden Names of Coconut
The most difficult part of a coconut allergy is how pervasive its use has become in goods that you don’t eat. Make up, shampoos, hand soaps, laundry detergents, and so many other products will now be off limits to you because of this allergy.
It sucks. I’m sorry. I’m right there with you.
Here is a list of chemicals and other names of ingredients that you need to avoid as they are all derivatives of the coconut.
- 1 2 Octanediol
- 2 Phenoxyethanol
- Activated Charcoal (often derived from the coconut husks, make sure you don’t use a water filter with charcoal without contacting the company for sourcing info)
- Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate
- Capryl Glycol
- Caprylic Acid
- Caprylic Glycol
- Cetearyl Alcohol
- Cetearyl Glucoside
- Ceteth-20 Phosphate
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Cetyl Esters
- Cocamide DEA / Coconut diethanolamide / diethanolamine / acid / CDEA – Other names for it: Calamide, Ninol, Witcamide
- Cocamide MEA
- Cocamide Sulphate
- Cocamidopropyl Betaine / CAPB / cocamidopropylbetaine / Lauramidopropyl betaine – * N-(carboxy methyl)-N, N-dimethyl-3-[(1-oxococonut) amino]-1-propanaminium hydroxide *, inner salt, source Tegobetaine L7, Cocoyl amide propyldimethyl glycine, coconut oil amidopropyl betaine source
- Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine – WiseGEEK says some manufacturers are replacing CAPB with this and that they claim it’s milder and more effective. I have no idea.
- Coco glucoside
- Coconut oil – Another name: cocos nucifera
- Coir (matting) – Contains coconut husks
- Decyl Glucoside – I have seen it listed on products as corn-derived, but it’s produced by the reaction of glucose from corn starch with the fatty alcohol decanol which is derived from coconut.
- Disodium Cocamphodiprop
- Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate
- Emusifying Wax
- Glyceryl Caprylate
- Glyceryl Cocoate
- Hexyl Laurate
- Isopropyl Myristate
- Lauryl Glucoside
- Lauryl Alcohol
- Lauramide DEA
- Myristic Acid
- Lauric Acid
- Olefin Sulfonate
- Organic Sodium Cocoate
- PEG – 7 Glyceryl Cocoate
- PEG -100
- PEG – 100 Stearate
- Polysorbate 20
- Sodium Cocoate
- Sodium Coco-Sulfate
- Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate
- Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate
- Sucrose Stearate
- Sodium Lauroamphoacetate
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate
- Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinat / Sodium Lauroyl Sarconsinate – I thought about adding ammonium lauroyl sarcosinate to the list, but I couldn’t find a source to confirm it. I just assume it would also be coconut-derived.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate
- Sodium Myreth Sulfate
- Sodium Stearate
- Sorbitan Stearate
- Stearyl Alcohol
- Stearalkonium chloride
- Sucrose Cocoate
- Sucrose Stearate
- TEA-Laureth Sulfate
- Vegetable Cetearyl Glucos / Vegetable Cetearyl Glucose
- Vegetable Glycerine – Can be coconut or soy based. Make sure you check with the company.
Want to download this list? Check out my free printable for coconut allergies so you are always prepared for reading ingredients no matter where you are!
Hidden Places for Coconut
It’s also important that you avoid coconut in home décor. Right now, it is popular to have coconut bowls, coconut roping and macramé, and even coconut utensils. While they are a good eco-friendly option for the planet, they are not good for us with coconut allergies. When purchasing a bowl, for example, please make sure you ensure it is not from a coconut tree.
Also, you want to make sure that if you purchase any new cast iron cookware, the oil used to coat the cast iron is not coconut oil.
- Perfumes are a place where coconut can hide
- Make up
- Body paint around Halloween time
- Activated Charcoal in health care products
- Activated Charcoal in water filters
- Vegan, Dairy free Milks
- Vegan, Dairy free Cheese (all types often use coconut oil)
- Vegan, Dairy free Whipped Toppings (often contain coconut oil)
- Hair Care Products including: Shampoo, Conditioner, Hair Oils, Masks, Gels, Mousse, Beard Care Products, etc.
- Hand Soaps and Hand Sanitizers
- Cleaning Products including: All Purpose Cleaner, Window Cleaner, etc.
After developing or discovering your coconut allergy, how you eat and how you live is very likely going to change. Cooking from home is one of the safest options for you and your family as you can ensure non allergens come into contact with your food, and thus, not cross contamination. Make sure your diet is filled with simple whole foods, such as meats, grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and lentils.
Living with allergies has gotten so much better in the past few years thanks to the requirements of labeling all food in grocery stores, as well as the sheer quantity of allergy free alternatives available in most stores.
As for what I use to clean, this is an ever evolving list. You can read how I make my own skincare routine, how I make my own handsoap here. Make sure you check out my 3 ingredient shampoo article! Coconut allergies are something I’m very passionate about as it’s so difficult to live life with one.
How to Dine Out
While not the biggest change to your life with a coconut allergy, there are some new considerations to make from the options available to you when dining out. No longer can you just go grab a quick bite to eat, nor will you be able to freely eat at a friend’s house.
The best way to avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting sick at restaurants is to research ahead of time. Most restaurants post their menus online, which gives me a chance to figure out if this restaurant would be a safe option. Even if the menu says “allergy friendly” you still should research, because it is really difficult to ensure that a chef or kitchen will wipe off any surfaces, open new bags of ingredients, or even use a different set of gloves when preparing food.
For coconut allergies in general, you want to be wary of Vegan and Asian inspired cuisine as they both rely heavily on coconut to flavor things. Candy coatings in places like ice cream and frozen yogurt stores are also of concern. When in doubt, call the company or restaurant and talk with them about your allergies and how you can be safe when enjoying their food.
When dining at a friend’s house, I will always ask if I can bring an option that is coconut allergy safe.
Learn More about other Allergies
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