Pine nuts — or pine kernels — are edible seeds harvested from some species of pine tree.
They may also be called pignoli (the Italian name), pinoli, Indian nut, or piñon.
They’ve been in the (allergy) news a lot more lately largely due to Pret, who use pine nuts in some of their products, such as the Chicken Pesto & Rocket Flat Bread (pictured right). This regularly draws in criticism from social media users, because Pret do not declare pine nuts as allergens on their on-shelf labelling.
Pret are correct in this regard, and the berating allergy consumers are wrong, although the reason Pret provide in their defence to such unfair attacks is often flawed in itself.
When it comes to the declarable allergens — the so called ‘Top 14’ allergens or groups of allergens — what matters is not whether a food can cause an allergy (most of them can), but whether the food is on the legal list for declaration. Eight named ‘tree nuts’ are on the list, and constitute one of the 14 as a group, but pine nuts are not among the eight. You can argue that they’re called nuts until you’re blue in the chops. They’re not on the list, and that’s all that matters. They’re not, as Pret sometimes claim, absent from the list because they’re seeds — plenty of seeds are on the list — they’re just Not On The List. (This may well change in future.)
Which fully undermines the premise of this story published in the Gazette & Herald, which should be withdrawn, as the customer was wrong, and the journalist careless in failing to check her accuracy.
To make things more confusing, pine nuts ARE on the allergen list in the US.
Pine nuts as allergens
Pine nuts are allergens to some people, although pine nut allergy isn’t as common as peanut or tree nut allergy. Most with pine nuts can tolerate other nuts; and vice versa. There may be some cross-reactivity between pine nuts and peanuts, and pine nuts and almonds, but this is not thought to be significant.
Although they will not be highlighted as allergens on labelling, they should be included in the list of ingredients. I don’t know of any ingredient derived from pine nut that might result in its absence. This is unlike other non-top-14 allergens such as pea and sunflower, that may be the sources of ingredients such as ‘vegetable protein’ or ‘lecithin’ respectively, but not declared explicitly as such.
The main use for pine kernels is in Italian pesto sauce, although some cheaper ready-made brands may not use them. Many on-shelf pestos contain tree nuts in addition to pine nut (which often catches out people allergic to them), as well as other allergens such as egg, milk and even sesame. Remember that “nut free” does not imply “pine nut free”. Pesto recipes can change regularly due to pine nut price fluctuations. Whatever your allergies — take care with pestos.
Other potential sources are baked goods, desserts and puddings, nut mixes, stuffings, and sandwich fillings, as with Pret.
The bad news is that because it’s not a top 14 allergen, pine nut won’t be included in a ‘may contains’ advisory statement when there is a cross-contamination risk. If you know a manufacturer uses pine nuts in at least one of its products, there may be some theoretical risk. I don’t know of any chocolate firms which use pine nuts in products, but you may want to follow up with any brand such as Sacla who produce pesto sauces, for instance.
In this regard, there is more protection for American pine nut allergy folk.