Hidden Allergens: Pink Peppercorns, Tree Nut Allergies and how an Amazon Reviewer Helped Solve a Mystery

I know that this photo is not something that you expect to see when you visit my blog, but what I am going to share is so incredibly important, it could very well save many lives; maybe even the life of someone you know.

my daughter, a few months before her first anaphylactic reaction to tree nuts

My daughter has a severe tree nut allergy,* meaning if she eats nuts, she will stop breathing and die.

We learned this the hard way when she was four years old, and ate a chocolate Christmas ornament which was filled with a hazelnut paste. I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like, and the terror that fills every part of your being when you hear your child barely choke out the words, “I can’t breathe”, and to see her gasping for air.  I immediately called 911, and she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. This was my family’s very first experience with any sort of allergy, and it was life-changing for all of us. Nuts were now a dreaded, dangerous and life-threatening food.


Fast forward 10 years: on the 4th of July, my daughter was at a restaurant at Disneyland with one of her best friends when I received a phone call from her friend’s mother who told me that she thought my daughter had ingested some form of tree nuts, and was wondering whether to use the EpiPen (a shot of epinephrine) for her anaphylactic reaction. Of course, I was petrified, and told her that my daughter had to be the one to make that decision based on how serious the reaction felt, and luckily she ended up getting the nuts out of her system and the use of the EpiPen was averted. At this point, the biggest problem was that the chef was baffled as to how this occurred, as he was certain that the Tortellini Alfredo and focaccia were nut-free. It was the only incident in which we had no idea what had caused her reaction. I spoke to the chef the next day, but there was still no luck in deducing what instigated her anaphylaxis, so we were left with a mystery.

About two weeks after this incident, I was browsing peppercorns and pepper blends on Amazon.com, when I clicked on a Four Seasons Pepper Blend, which included pink peppercorns or pepper berries. The first review really caught my eye:

I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and wondered if the chef might have used this pepper blend in the pasta or focaccia that my daughter had eaten, so I quickly did some research, and confirmed what the reviewer had posted. I immediately called the restaurant, and began to ask the chef if he used this pepper blend, and hadn’t even finished asking the question, when he exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” What a relief to know what the culprit had been that had caused her reaction.

It’s disconcerting to think that we actually had a pepper berry tree in the backyard of our previous house, and I used to cut the berries and use them for various crafts. This is what the berries look like.

From Wikipedia:

Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle, also known as American pepperPeruvian peppertreeescobillafalse peppermolle del Perupepper treepeppercorn treeCalifornian pepper treepirul and Peruvian mastic.) is an evergreen tree that grows to 15 meters (50 feet). It is native to rhe Peruvian Andes. The bright pink fruits of Schinus molle are often sold as “pink peppercorns” although S. molle is unrelated to true pepper.

This information needs to be spread as widely as possible:

Pink peppercorns, pink pepperberries, pink berries, Peruvian pepper and whatever else they may be called, are related to
and can cause an anaphylactic reaction in those
who are allergic to CASHEWS/TREE NUTS. 

Here’s what you can do to help spread the word:

  • Forward this information to anyone you know who has a nut allergy. I have contacted Penzey’s Spices and other spice retailers to ask them to place this warning on their labels. If you can do the same thing, changes will happen more quickly, and hopefully avert potentially life-threatening allergic reactions in future (see update below: great news!)
  • If you or your child has a nut allergy, make sure to ask at restaurants, at friends’ homes, and wherever your food is prepared if a pepper blend including pink pepper berries has been used. Inform them that the berries are related to tree nuts.
  • Contact newspapers, local TV news, etc. to feature articles or segments on this information.
  • Spread the info via social media; ask others to share, re-tweet, re-pin, etc.
  • Translate the info into other languages, and share outside our borders.
  • Pass on the information by word of mouth; you never know whose life you might save.

Also, AllergyEats.com is a helpful resource for allergy sufferers when eating out.

To all my loyal readers, thank you for allowing me to get “off-track” and get on my soapbox to spread the word about this berry. And to Kevin, the wonderful Amazon reviewer, I thank you and am so appreciative that you took the time to leave such an incredibly helpful review! A little information can go a long way, and hopefully this will.

*People throw the word, “allergy” around so loosely, that it scares me. 

It terrifies me that the waiter who is used to hearing guests order something “on-the-side” because they’re “allergic”, then sees them eating it anyway, won’t take allergies seriously anymore. 

It alarms me that people don’t realize that simply touching nuts, and then touching other food is enough to cause anaphylaxis in some allergy sufferers, my daughter included (there are others whose allergies are even worse than hers). 

It worries me because there is no barometer to measure or communicate how serious an allergy is, so it’s completely open to interpretation, and it concerns me, because these things directly impact my daughter’s life and many others’, too. 

Please be mindful of the impact that use of the word “allergy” can have.

*UPDATE 5/20/2014 PENZEY’S SPICES has made the decision to put a warning label on their items containing pink pepperberries and in the descriptions in their catalogs! Kudos to Penzey’s Spices! Their products are fantastic, too!


Author: Lynda LaCour

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