Editors' Note: We are reprinting the following article from Zel Allen's Vegan NutGourmet because we feel the information is so important it should receive a wide audience.
By Zel Allen
Thanks to the conscientious effort of Christina who writes Christina's Cucina blog, I now have important allergenic information to share.
The serious side of pink peppercorns
However, the family was puzzled about the food that caused the severe reaction. After extensive research, Christina learned about the connection of this seasoning ingredient to the cashew family and confirmed that the chef at the restaurant had used pink peppercorns.
Because of her concern for others with nut allergies, Christina contacted Penzeys Spices and asked that a warning be placed on the labels of any of the spice blends containing pink peppercorns. The company complied and now has warnings on containers that include "pink pepperberries." Penzeys Spices also includes the warning in their popular spice catalog.
Still concerned, Christina contacted Trader Joe's and requested they label pink peppercorn as a tree nut, because of its relationship to the cashew family. Trader Joe's responded as follows:
"The FDA has very strict guidelines for top 8 allergen labeling and we cannot place a warning for non-top 8 allergens on our product labeling. Pink peppercorns are not considered a top 8 allergen by the FDA and therefore we cannot include this in an allergen statement for our products. However, we will also be sure to share your comments and specific concerns with the appropriate parties within our Quality Assurance and Buying Teams for further review and consideration in the future."
Pink peppercorns receive the guilty verdict
Researchers at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Department of Allergy and Immunology, reported on the case of the 26-year old woman mentioned above. They concluded, "This is the first reported case of a patient developing anaphylaxis after pink pepper ingestion. Patients with tree nut allergies may need to be educated regarding this potential allergen." The researchers also noted there is potential for cross-reactivity among different members of the Anacardiaceae family.
Some people are so sensitive to tree nuts and, especially peanuts, that even touching nuts or inhaling in their presence may be serious. The allergenic substance in the pink peppercorns may be urushiol, an oily substance present in some members of the Anacardiaceae family. With mangoes, urushiol is found in the skin, while it is the shell that clings tightly to the cashew nut that contains the allergen. In poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, urushiol is an oleoresin present in the sap. This oil can cause allergenic reactions rather quickly.
In his revised and updated book On Food and Cooking; The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, author Harold McGee writes about pink peppercorns, "The tree is in the cashew and mango family, which also includes poison ivy and poison oak, and its brittle, peppercorn-sized fruits contain cardanol, an irritating phenolic compound that limits its usefulness in foods."
Share this important message
I'm aware that knowing this information could save your life or the life of someone you know. If you suffer from a tree nut allergy or know someone who does, I urge you to share this information and encourage others to read the ingredient labels carefully when purchasing spice blends to avoid these highly allergenic pink berries. Even if you've been using a product for a long time and think you're familiar with the ingredients, read the label anyway. Manufacturers make changes in their formulations from time to time and are required to list new ingredients on their labels.
Families with young children with severe nut allergies need to take special precaution to make sure their foods are free of the entire family of nuts and related foods like pink peppercorns, and sometimes even sesame and sunflower seeds, which have properties similar to tree nuts.
Ask specifically about nut-containing ingredients at restaurants, friends' and relatives' homes, and daycare centers to prevent tragic life-threatening episodes. I know it's a time-eater, but packing your child's school lunches could be lifesaving. For those times when your child eats at the school cafeteria, I also think it's important to ask about all the ingredients in prepared school lunches.
Teachers and day-care workers may find invaluable help at AllergyReady.com, a website that offers a free version of their program called How to C.A.R.E. for Students with Food Allergies, an online course.
About pink peppercorns
Members of the Anacardiaceae (cashew) family and natives of South America, these pink berries grow in clusters on a tree known by many names: Brazilian pepper, Peruvian pepper, Peruvian mastic tree, Baies Rose, California pepper tree, American pepper tree, Florida Holly, Christmasberry, and peppercorn tree. Though there are two tree varieties that produce these berries, the berries themselves are quite similar.
The Brazillian pepper tree, introduced into Florida in the 1800s and also known as Florida Holly and Christmasberry, is scientifically classified as Schinus terebinthifolius. The tree grows more like a tall shrub, up to 33 feet high, with broader, alternating leaves than its cousin, the Peruvian pepper tree and is considered an invasive pest. Peppercorns from this variety may owe its toxicity to its content of urushiol oil allergens and phenolic cardanol.
The Peruvian pepper tree, also called Peruvian mastic tree and Baies Rose, is classified scientifically as Shinus molle, and is commonly listed as the California pepper tree because it thrives so well in California's hot climate with very little water. This variety grows quite tall, up to 40 feet, and resembles a weeping willow with elongated narrow leaves that cascade downward, giving a delicate lacy appearance. This variety is common in Southern California and other warm climates like Hawaii. Shinus molle is the variety of pepper tree that grows on the French island of Reunion. Much of the pink peppercorns that the U.S. imported came from this island. This variety may or may not contain urushiol oils.
The University of California lists Schinus terebinthifolius and Schinus molle as minor toxic garden plants that may cause illness like vomiting or diarrhea.
The bright pink berries have many names also: Christmas berries, rose berries, false pepper, pink peppercorns, pink pepperberries, pink berries, and rose baises.
A culinary delight with a dangerous edge
A number of craft beer brewers suggest adding pink peppercorns in small quantities when brewing beer or ale to add a sweet, fruity quality, resulting in flavors similar to golden raisins, plums, or juniper berries. Sometimes brewers combine the pink peppercorns with other herbs or spices to appeal to those who appreciate unique beers. These fruity style beers are known as Saison or Lambic.
Many ancient cultures actively brewed beer, but it was the Incas who recognized the flavor potential of adding pink peppercorns to their beer. Predating the Incas were the Wari tribe from Southern Peru who used their native foods to brew beer--fermented corn and pink peppercorns.
The FDA weighs in
A University of Michigan herbal consultant explained that pink peppercorns, Schinus terebinthifolius, are related to poison ivy and can cause the same unpleasant symptoms people experience when exposed: swollen eyelids, shortness of breath, violent headaches, chest pains, sore throat, hoarseness, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and upset stomach. Apparently, some birds that ingest the peppercorns can experience intoxication. After learning this information, the FDA issued the following statement:
"While it is not known how many berries are required to cause adverse effects, experts advise against eating the pink or red peppercorns."
Experts say, "no" to pink and red
Taylor recognized the berries from the trees grown in the U.S. and those grown on the Ile de Reunion, a French island near Madagascar, were the same species but may have different volatile oils that made the French berries problem-free.
The New York Times article said the FDA proposed the French government send an affirmation that stated the pink peppercorns were "generally recognized as safe." Until then, the ban would remain in place.
Wikipedia mentions the ban was lifted but does not provide a date or any statement from the FDA Because it may be difficult to determine which variety of the pink berries are contained in seasoning mixtures, or whether variety matters, I would advise anyone with a nut allergy to avoid pink peppercorns completely.
"Brazilian Pepper-tree, Schinus terebinthifolius."
University of Florida IFAS Extension
Burros, Marian. "FDA AND FRENCH DISAGREE ON PINK PEPPERCORN'S EFFECTS." New York Times. Home & Garden, March 31, 1982.
"Is it okay to eat the pink pepper corns out of my yard?"
McIlroy, Anne. "Ancient empire built on beer." November 15, 2005. Globe and Mail. Organissimo
"Pink Peppercorns." Clove Garden.
"Spice Guide Entry For: Pink Pepper (Shinus terebinthifolius)."
"Toxic Plants (by scientific name)."
University of California Safe and Poisonous Garden Plants.
"Tree Nut Allergies." FARE: Food Allergy Research & Education.
About Food Allergies.
"What's The Deal With Green, Black, White, and Pink Peppercorns?" the kitchn.
"When to Use Your EpiPen Auto-Injector." EpiPen.
"Pink peppercorn." Wikipedia, February 2, 2014.