How I accidentally terrified my peanut-allergic friend

trader-joes-sunflower-seed-butter…and you can, too—not that you should—in three easy steps:

Step 1. Buy sunbutter.
Step 2. Make buckeyes.
Step 3. Serve.

See, I like peanut butter. I like peanut butter a lot. Give me Thai peanut sauce, Reese’s cups, Nutter Butters, any flavor of Peanut Butter & Co.—if it’s peanuts, I’ll eat it.

I have a friend, whom I’ll call B., who is allergic to peanuts. When I discovered that sunflower seed butter (or sunbutter) has a taste and texture like peanut butter’s, I was surprised to learn B. had never tried it. No peanut butter and no peanut butter substitute? How did he live?

Sprue Jr.—that’s Althea, who thought she should have a special name on my blog, and should be more careful what she wishes for—loves peanut butter, too. We always have a jar in the fridge, and we sometimes even make our own. (Lightly salted Planter’s peanuts make the best peanut butter ever, and if you add in pumpkin puree and pie spices, it’s all over.)

So, at a party we threw, we decided to show B. what he was missing. We made all the food not only vegetarian and gluten-free, but also peanut-free, tree nut–free, and soy-free (because a soy-intolerant friend of ours was also attending). We wanted to ensure everyone could try everything, without feeling nervous. It’s just nicer that way.

Now, buying groceries with gluten in mind is annoying enough, but this was harder still. I’ve never been more grateful for my smartphone. I scrutinized package labels and manufacturers’ websites until I thought my eyeballs would fall out and roll away down the aisle. It seemed every brand of chocolate that wasn’t processed alongside wheat was processed alongside nuts—or, failing that, contained soy.

Once I had found acceptable ingredients and resecured my eyes in their sockets, Sprue Jr. and I had a wonderful time rolling slightly-too-warm sunbutter balls around in not-really-tempered chocolate. By the way, the forks method only works for the first dip.

Clockwise from top, we've got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles, dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites, and milk-chocolate buckeyes. And you probably recognize the berries.

Clockwise from the top, we’ve got white-chocolate- and dark-chocolate-covered no-bake cake truffles (made with KAF vanilla cake mix), dark-chocolate buckeyes, more truffles, marshmallow-swirl brownie bites (made with Bob’s brownie mix and marshmallow fluff), and milk-chocolate buckeyes. You probably recognize the berries.

Despite the not-fit-for-the-Cooking-Channel preparation, the buckeyes, once set overnight in the freezer, tasted perfect. When I carried the desserts platter around at the party (to collect the oohs and aahs and you-MADE-this?s), I thought B. would be thrilled.

Instead, he took the candy with trepidation and said, “It smells like peanut butter.”

Silly me, I nodded enthusiastically. Sprue Jr., who was standing by, did too. We know!, I suppose we were both thinking. Isn’t it great?

“Are you sure there’s no peanuts in this?” B. said, and it finally dawned on me he was nervous. We assured him it was safe—not processed alongside nuts or anything—and he took a bite.

“It feels like death coating my tongue,” he said.

Crestfallen, we began a chorus of apologies and oh-nos.

“No, it’s good,” B. continued, “but it tastes just like what I imagine peanut butter would taste like.” Later that evening, he exclaimed—more than once—that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead.

He later elaborated, in email,

At the time it felt really strange…I had this visceral sense that I was eating poison. Whenever I smell peanut butter there’s this burning in my nose—not because of an allergic reaction, I don’t think, but my body just knows it’s poison, and it mixes my immune system with a fear reaction and the adrenaline starts pumping and I just know something is terribly wrong. And sunbutter smelled exactly the same way to me, or at least my body had the same response, so it was hard to force myself to just eat it…

Of course, I didn’t intend to scare B., or make him feel like he was being poisoned. All I wanted was to share something I enjoy with him, the best way I could. But he hasn’t had sunbutter again since the party, and though he said that the aftertaste was clearly sunflower seeds, not peanuts, and that he’s not opposed to trying it again, he clearly didn’t respond with the “here’s what I’ve been missing all my life” sense of joy I’d been expecting.

The experience showed me how different it is to have celiac disease, diagnosed in my twenties, than to have anaphylactic food allergies from birth. There are specific things I have happy memories of eating, and therefore want to recreate now. For someone who has never had anything but scary or painful memories associated with a food, there’s understandably less reason to find a substitute. And, although I can certainly relate to being nervous that something I’m eating might turn out to contain gluten, accidental peanut exposure poses a more immediate risk for B.

The lesson here is this: If you, like me, love peanuts, and have a friend who can’t eat them, by all means make and serve these delicious buckeye knockoffs (taking, of course, the same cross-contamination measures you’d want someone to take for you).

But remember: one man’s favorite is another man’s poison. Your friend may not run right out to buy a year’s supply. If not, well, more sunbutter for you. And the only thing scary about that is how quickly you’ll go through it.

Do you like to eat “free from” substitutes for old favorite foods? Is there anything you draw the line at trying? And are you a peanut butter or sunbutter fan, too?

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18 thoughts on “How I accidentally terrified my peanut-allergic friend

  1. Amanda says:

    Yeah, no way. Sunbutter terrifies me. I’ve eaten it IN things and I have anxiety the whole time. There’s no way I would want to recreate the taste of something that has nearly killed me. While Celiac has been associated with an increase in certain types of cancers, it doesnt cause immediate death and sometimes doesn’t even cause immediate symptoms so it’s much easier for me to enjoy free from gluten substitutes.

    • Molly says:

      I don’t blame you a bit, Amanda! I do wonder if there are many parents who give sunbutter to their young kids with peanut allergies, and if the situation is different then…

  2. I have a peanut allergy too. But I eat Sunflower butter on crackers and make faux peanut butter cookies using sunflower butter. But I do understand his hesitancy and yours too Amanda.

    • Molly says:

      That sounds good! I’ve been thinking about sunbutter blossoms (peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses stuck in the middle), since PB blossoms are a Christmas tradition in my family and we’ve gotten pretty into sunbutter ourselves, even though we can eat the “real” thing too.

  3. Dear Molly,

    As always, an incredibly thoughtful post on those tricky fault lines around the edges of having a food restriction. As you know, I think a lot about what all custom eaters have in common – and also what is particular to one group or another. The openness, sensitivity and compassion that comes through this post is, well, why we love you and your content. I hope you’ll share it on freedible – our community is so eager for more of your thought-provoking content!

    All the best,
    Cheryl

    • Molly says:

      Well, Cheryl, comments like yours are one reason I love Freedible! Thanks for stopping by (and for the nudge…you know, what I need is a way to automate those posts…hmm).

  4. SStitches says:

    I don’t know how I would feel! My allergies that include an anaphylaxis risk are not ones for which you commonly find substitutes — shrimp and fish (though, strangely, not all seafood). There is a local chippie here who will gladly make chicken in gluten-free batter, but we had to have a lengthy discussion about where the chicken is, then, fried before I would go anywhere near it. I’m not getting fished just because I’m avoiding being glutened! (As I’m sure you’re dying to know, they fry it in the same vat as the chips, making the chips not entirely vegetarian but posing no risks to my dear throat.)

    • Molly says:

      I do know of a few vegan “fish” recipes, so at least some people out there are working on substitutes (if you ever want to test those waters). And they aren’t all made of seitan, either!

      I’ve never heard anyone use the word “fished” in that context before, but it makes sense. (Would you also say “shrimped”? And does someone with a dairy allergy get “milked”?) Anyway, that’s great that you’re able to work with the staff to get a safe meal (even if it does mean the chips are getting “chickened”!).

  5. Mary Kate says:

    I know that that is one of the problems they’re having to overcome in some of the tolerance trials they are doing for kids with food allergies — once you can have that food, you HAVE to eat it daily, and these are foods that the kids have been scared of their entire lives.

    Now, I seem to have developed a mild peanut allergy (when I ate them, I did not finish the challenge because the itchy throat was clear enough to me) in my 30s. But I LOVE(d) peanut butter and kind of lived on it in early childhood and then again in grad school. So I keep sunbutter around as it is closer than almond or cashew butter (both of which I can eat) in a sandwich. In that case, it’s the GF bread that trips things all up, as we grew up with super-hearty whole wheat grainy bread, and the best commercial thing I can get is Ener-G white bread. Hrmph.

    We did no bake cookies with sunbutter last year, but Denise is now allergic to sunflower. She’s good on peanuts, though.

    • Molly says:

      I hadn’t even thought of that side of it (kids doing tolerance trials/desensitization). Yes, that’s gotta be tough. Again, I’m wondering about what I mentioned above in response to Amanda—whether peanut-allergy parents tend to give their kids sunbutter (or if they think that would be too potentially confusing) and, if so, whether kids don’t have the same worries about it, as I imagine they wouldn’t, just being used to it. Presumably a kid with an anaphylactic wheat allergy who ate GF bread from a young age wouldn’t feel worried about the bread (though, as you say, that bread has a ways to go to be mistaken for the real thing! I miss whole grain bread, too, and pumpernickel).

  6. Berkman says:

    i would absolutely eat these again, if you happen to make them. maybe it’s some type of weird thanatos thing.

    • Molly says:

      You’re a brave man, B. (Or, yeah, Thanatos.) Also, there are 4 cups of sugar in the recipe, not including in the sunbutter or chocolate, so maybe that has something to do with the appeal.

  7. denisedaniel says:

    As Mary Kate stated above, I recently bought sunflower oil to try instead of canola because canola can be really corn contaminated, and I used it to roast some pumpkin seeds, and had one of the worst allergic reactions I’ve ever had in the least amount of time from ingestion. (I have pumpkin seeds all the time so I know it wasn’t that.) I came milliseconds from spiking myself with my epi-pen (which I should have done and would have done if my breathing had gotten any worse). While all my allergies have been adult onset, and I pine for a lot of foods I can no longer have (dairy, egg, wheat, corn, scallops, clam, crab and chicken, although I don’t care about coconut, hazelnuts, almonds and flax, with the caveat that they are in a lot of stuff which is annoying), the reaction to sunflower was bad enough that I don’t even want to try anything with sunflower ever again, even to trial to verify that the reaction was sunflower. I’m all good, it’s like thinking about eating rat poison, seriously. But for some reason, I still dream about pizza with my dairy allergy. Maybe it’s because it hasn’t made me sick enough.

    • Molly says:

      I’m sorry to hear that, Denise! I’m continually impressed with the way you and Mary Kate navigate through your respective (and combined) mazes of allergies. (Um, and what do you mean, you don’t care about FLAX? Just kidding.)

      I can see why you wouldn’t want to go there again. Pizza (especially the cheese) is definitely a little sexier than sunflower oil, so maybe that’s part of it, too.

  8. This is a fascinating post, especially to someone like me without a nut allergy. But it makes sense how scary it would be for your friend, and for many in the same boat. Can you imagine putting something in your mouth that smelled like poison and even felt like the texture of it, even if you knew (hoped!) it wasn’t? Crazy. Thanks for giving another perspective on this. Very eye opening.
    -Dana

  9. I love sun butter. It’s so easy to make! Just whizz up sunflower seeds. Voila!

  10. […] nothing like a simple weeknight meal. Now, I don’t mean peanut butter (or sunbutter) straight out of the jar with a handful of potato chips, or peanut butter spread onto gluten-free […]

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