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Lupine, the peanut's dangerous relative

This lovely lupine flower accompanies a substance, related to peanuts and soy, that could threaten your life.
This lovely lupine flower accompanies a substance, related to peanuts and soy, that could threaten your life.
Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

For most American consumers, the legume known as lupine—or lupin, in Europe, where it is more commonly found—is practically unknown. Get used to seeing it included more frequently, however, as an ingredient in gluten-free foods. Because of the fact that it can be ground and used as flour, this plant, related to both peanuts and soy, is often substituted for gluten-containing grains such as wheat. Yet due to its biological family ties, it can pack a serious allergic wallop.

Those who are allergic to peanuts already know that they must thoroughly check out the listed ingredients on food packaging. This is not always possible on items purchased without labeling, such as in restaurants, or at fairs, bake sales, etc. Even candy and other items sold by vending machines bear labels with their composition outlined somewhere on their wrappers, although this may not be visible until after purchase. Lupine, though, is new enough to the public over here so as not to raise too many alarms just yet. With its increasing popularity in this country, expect problems.

Lupine is found pretty much world-wide, having been long ago a staple in North and South America, some parts of North Africa and the Mediterranean countries. Used as beans, often called “lupini” in Italian food and markets, as well as agricultural fodder and a fallow crop (being plowed under to enrich the soil with nitrogen), it’s surprising that this legume has not been well-known here previously. Yet with the burgeoning market in gluten-free foods, not only for those in need of such a diet for medical reasons such as celiac disease, but the current weight-loss fad, this is about to hit the fan.

Peanut-allergy sufferers will be seen in more emergency rooms and urgent care clinics with anaphylaxis. They will be buying, and using, epi-pens (containing a dose of epinephrine) to carry, and self-administer, in situations where they encounter their allergen. Many will have life-threatening reactions, even on their first exposure to lupine. The family connection between the two plants is strong enough to be considered a danger to those who cannot tolerate peanuts. With soy, as well, there is a risk to use of this food. Peanut allergy, however, has apparently been the more wide-spread of the legume reactions.

Being more in use in Europe, the European Commission acted in 2006 to require by law that all products containing lupine must be labeled with warnings to consumers. It would certainly be a wise act for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to act similarly. So far, all they have done is issue an alert: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm409836.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery. Since there are not a lot of people who receive such alerts via their email or other venues, the federal government ought to take pro-active measures before the situation develops any further.

Considering there are an estimated three million Americans (according to http://www.foodallergy.org/facts-and-stats) of all ages reporting peanut allergies—and God knows how many undiagnosed or unreported—this is not some issue that can be taken lightly. There is some controversy existing whereby some “experts” (ie., those working for the pro-peanut side such as the Peanut Institute) declare that the figures are far lower, and that this applies mostly to children, who they maintain will outgrow the allergy. There is, unfortunately, nothing to back up such claims. Repeated exposure, in fact, to an allergen will often only serve to exacerbate the reactions in most cases.

The best action to take, whether or not the FDA ever does decide to become involved with lupine awareness, is to become more vigilant yourself. Read labels and packaging more scrupulously than before. Be more cautious whenever you see the words “gluten free”. Expect the unexpected.

For more details on lupine, see this FDA bulletin: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm409836.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery