One of the most interesting things I have learnt in my food allergy journey is that a‘food allergist is a doctor and not a nutritionist/food scientist/chef’! If we have questions related to specific foods (apart from common foods) and their potential to cause an allergic reaction our best bet is to:
- If you have access to FAAN (Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network), call them at (800) 929-4040. They have information on an amazing variety of foods.
- Talk to a nutritionist/ dietician.
- Research on your own – books, online sources, libraries etc.
However, there are quite a few items on which one hits a road block. My son’s allergist is aware that I blog about food allergies and we often exchange notes on lesser known foods. Recently he asked me an interesting question to which neither of us had an immediate answer – ‘Is chestnut a nut?’; a question raised by one of his other patients. An sensible question from someone who is allergic to nuts and therein began my quest.
A quick Google search gave me an answer – ‘Yes, a chestnut is a nut’! Chestnut is a genus of eight or nine species of deciduous trees and shrubs. The word ‘chestnut’ also refers to the edible nuts these trees produce. So, those with a nut allergy should stay away from chestnuts because it is a tree nut.
However, the answer seemed incomplete…a vague memory of the word chestnut being used in another context made me question the thoroughness of my answer. I gave up my quest but the question remained simmering on the back burner. Little did I realize that my question itself was incomplete!!! Serendipity helped me complete my question and hence get a satisfactory answer 🙂
In a previous post, I made a lot of noise about – ‘Do not rely solely on online research tools, books and professional organizations to get answers to your food-allergy related questions.’ The power of personal networking is immense – online, discussion forums, informal one-on-one chats and more! I remember coming across a calcium-rich grain called Ragi in India. Since calcium deficiency is a huge concern for those on a dairy-free diet, I was ecstatic to have found an elixir but I didn’t know its English equivalent name – hence, was unable to research further. That is, until, I ran across a pretty lady at a party who chanced to know that Ragi is Red Millet. And, lucky me – my little one is not allergic to red millet and is able to consume this nutritious grain in a variety of tasty forms 🙂
The chestnut dilemma took a similar fortuitous twist…a music group and humor led to a chance acquaintance with an adventurous soul and ardent foodie. Amidst our random musings, this doting dad asked me if I had ever considered giving a nutritious item called ‘water chestnuts’ to my little one. He told me that it tastes great and is commonly eaten in combination with vegetables, rice and more. He went on to add that in the flour form it is used to make tortillas that taste divine!
Suddenly the light bulb flashed on and I delved further into the world of water chestnuts. Water chestnuts very unlike chestnuts are a tuber vegetable that only resembles a chestnut in color and shape. As stated in the FAAN website, ‘The water chestnut is not a nut; it is an edible portion of a plant root known as a “corm.” It is safe for someone who is allergic to tree nuts.’ In fact, there is negligible incidence of allergies to water chestnuts. However, people can be allergic to any food, so it is important for those who are sensitive to cereals or fructose to talk to their allergist before trying any new foods.
Water chestnut is most commonly associated with Chinese cuisine but is used in other South Asian cuisines as well. They are the roots of an aquatic plant that grows in freshwater ponds, marshes and lakes, and in slow-moving rivers and streams. Harvesting water chestnuts is labor intensive. Hence, they are fairly expensive to purchase, especially in the processed or canned form. You can easily purchase these products in most supermarkets and grocery stores. Fresh water chestnuts are harder to come across but are occasionally available at many Asian stores. A word of caution – purchase water chestnuts from a known supplier to ensure its freshness. Water chestnut flour is gluten-free and are available in many South Asian stores. A few other names that water chestnuts go by are water caltrop, buffalo nut, bat nut, devil pod, Singhara or Pani-fol! Water chestnuts contain little fat, are a good source of fiber and of vitamin B and contain a fair amount of the following minerals: calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc. So, the world of water chestnuts is definitely worth exploring
Aah – the immense relief I felt once the gnawing question ‘Are chestnuts nuts?’ was cleared up – phew!
So to summarize – ‘Chestnuts are nuts but water chestnuts are not nuts’. They are two completely different things.
A big ‘Thank You’ to Ashwin – a doting dad, a musician, and a braveheart with a passion for life. Had it not been for him the question would have remained unanswered for me. So, I reiterate – talk to people. You will be amazed how much the world of food will open up despite the many restrictions imposed by food allergies!
There is a wealth of information available online. Here are but a few of them for further Reading: