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Mystery Allergen Nutmeg Is Tough to Avoid

With a lot of work and some luck, a reader identified nutmeg as the mystery allergen that had been causing misery. Pea protein is another.

Have you ever had to track down a mystery allergen? The sleuthing needed to figure out what is causing allergic symptoms can be quite daunting. One reader describes a dramatic discovery of a nutmeg allergy.

Mystery Allergen Is Nutmeg:

Q. After many years of occasionally suffering headaches, itching and other symptoms, particularly during holidays, I found that I have a reaction to nutmeg. When I was a child, my mother added nutmeg to pies, turkey dressing, gravy, eggnog, etc., so I could not isolate what I was reacting to.

On a trip to a Caribbean island as an adult, I was given a whole nutmeg to chew on. I had an instant reaction and I finally identified the culprit.

When I told my doctor, she said,

“Nutmeg is a neurotoxin. A lot of people have a reaction to it, but most never figure that out. Nutmeg causes headaches that many attribute to wine, turkey or other foods. You are lucky that you have identified it.”

Trying to Avoid Nutmeg:

I do my best to avoid it, but I still frequently find I have inadvertently ingested this spice. Chefs in restaurants as well as friends in their home cooking add it to an array of breads, meats, seafood, desserts and vegetables. Purchased foods frequently list “spices” without identifying them. I would certainly like to see more detailed labeling of ingredients. Is nutmeg a problem for others?

A. Too much of this spice can certainly cause some very unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea and dizziness. On the whole, experts believe that nutmeg allergy like yours is rare. However, that may be partly because it is so hard to diagnose (Allergie et Immunologie, April 2002). Though most symptoms are reported after someone has eaten a food containing it, people with allergies to the spice may also react to skin contact (Cutis, Nov. 1993).

You are correct that many different foods may contain this tropical spice. One recipe we use calls for it to be added to the sauce for lasagna. It would certainly be helpful if companies were required to list exact ingredients.

Another Mystery Allergen–Pea Protein:

Nutmeg is not the only allergen you might unknowingly encounter in foods. One mother shared this story about her daughter’s allergy to pulses.

Q. I read your article on nutmeg allergy recently. My daughter is allergic to peas, chickpeas and lentils. She has been to the emergency room multiple times.
Unfortunately, pea protein is a new additive to many products. Skippy peanut butter recently added pea protein to their reduced fat brand. Another ER visit. Then pea protein was in coffee creamer. Another ER visit. Then in macaroni. Another ER visit.

I would like to make the public aware of the danger of these additives to unexpected foods. My daughter reads all labels. However, she had eaten Skippy her entire life and had no idea that pea protein had been added to the low-fat formula two weeks before she bought it and reacted so badly.

A. You are right that pea protein is now showing up in many foods. Look out for it in energy bars, veggie burgers, cereal and many other foods. Not all peanut butter contains pea protein, but some does. Consequently, your daughter and others who share her allergy will need to be even more obsessive about poring over food labels.

Learn More:

You can find out about the health impacts of spices and herbs through our interviews. Show 988: Spices for a Healthy Life features turmeric. Rosemary is the star in Show 1056: Longevity, Spice and Diet–Secrets Italians Know That You Don’t.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Moneret-Vautrin DA et al, "Food allergy and IgE sensitization caused by spices: CICBAA data (based on 589 cases of food allergy)." Allergie et Immunologie, April 2002.
  • Futrell JM & Rietschel RL, "Spice allergy evaluated by results of patch tests." Cutis, Nov. 1993.
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