Peanuts are the 18th most valuable crop globally. Unfortunately, they’re also the cause of one of the most dangerous food allergies. People only eat the seeds or “fruit” of the peanut, so are the rest of the peanut plant (like the leaves) poisonous, too?
Peanut leaves aren’t poisonous by themselves. Allergies or sensitivities come from the seed itself, not the entire plant. Peanut seeds can become toxic when they’re contaminated by aflatoxins. Also, the leaves of the peanut plant are fed to farm animals and may have medicinal properties.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain whether peanut leaves are safe for consumption. I’ll then cover some of the most common uses of peanut leaves. Finally, I’ll talk about what makes peanuts in general poisonous to humans.
Can You Eat the Leaves of a Peanut Plant?
You can eat the leaves of a peanut plant for medicinal purposes according to Eastern tradition. However, they’re not likely to be sold as a food item on their own. They’re often a byproduct of harvesting peanuts and are sold in the United States as “peanut hay” for the consumption of farm animals.
What Are Peanut Leaves Used For?
Peanut leaves are used as animal fodder for the most part. In Chinese medicine, they’re also used to treat ailments such as insomnia and inflammation. Recent research suggests there’s merit to the idea that peanut leaves have medicinal properties.
Peanut Leaves As Animal Fodder
Because farmers use so little of the peanut plant, peanut crops yield high amounts of forage or fodder. In the United States, peanut fodder is called “peanut hay,” which makes up 25% to 40% of the total peanut acreage. Farmers use it in winter as a supplement for livestock, since it’s relatively hardy compared to other types of hay.
Likewise, peanut fodder is also fed to livestock in Gambia (especially in the urban centers), as well as India. On the other hand, West African farmers put a higher value on peanut forage. In fact, they value peanut seeds and peanut forage equally. Peanut forage is a primary source of income for farmers in the country..
Peanut Leaves as Treatment for Insomnia and Inflammation
Eastern medicine uses plants in many of its remedies, and peanut leaves are no exception. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) uses peanut leaves to treat insomnia and inflammation. Interestingly, a 2019 study found that, despite the lack of research on their bioactive compounds, peanut leaves are a valuable source of resveratrol that has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antitumor effects.
Also, according to a November 2021 study in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, peanut leaves and stems may regulate neuron excitability, leading to improved sleep quality. It’s possible peanut leaves can treat other illnesses, though more research is needed on this topic.
What Makes Peanuts Poisonous?
Peanuts can become poisonous if you’re allergic to specific proteins in the seeds. They can also be toxic if they have aflatoxins, which occur due to the plant’s exposure to a certain fungus. Fortunately, the way peanuts are usually processed minimizes the amount of aflatoxins in them.
How Peanut Allergies Happen
Peanut allergies are the most common allergy in children under 18 and the second most common allergy in adults. The allergy occurs when specific proteins in the peanut seed come into contact and bind with antibodies in a person’s immune system. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), most of these proteins come from the Cupin superfamily, Prolamin superfamily, Profilin family, and Bet v-1 related proteins.
To date, no one knows why some people develop peanut allergies and others don’t. What we do know is that when someone allergic to peanuts comes into contact with the seed (usually by ingestion), the person can go into anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis usually manifests as breathing difficulties, loss of consciousness, or shock. When this happens, treat as quickly as possible with an epinephrine shot, if that’s available.
Other symptoms of an allergic reaction to peanuts include:
- Stomach cramps
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
In addition, if you have a peanut allergy, you should avoid foods like:
- Peanut oil
- Peanut butter
- Artificial nuts
- Beer nuts
- Peanut flour
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent a young child from getting a peanut allergy. If your infant is at high risk, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)’s 2017 guidelines recommends introducing peanut-containing food at 4-6 months — provided your baby has begun to eat solid foods and has no apparent adverse reaction to peanuts.
If you’re worried that you or your child has a peanut allergy, the best thing to do is visit the doctor and get tested for a peanut allergy.
Peanuts and Aflatoxins
The National Cancer Institute defines aflatoxins as “a family of toxins found on crops such as tree nuts, maize (corn), cottonseed and peanuts that produce a certain fungi.” People usually come into contact with these toxins through ingestion.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), aflatoxins account for the loss of about 25% of the world’s annual food crops. The main reasons foods get exposed to aflatoxins are drought, insect damage, and poor storage.
Thankfully, food safety measures in the United States significantly lower Americans’ exposure to aflatoxins. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that there has never been an outbreak of illness due to aflatoxins in America. The same cannot be said of some developing countries, though.
Despite the lack of reported cases of aflatoxin exposure in America, you should still take the necessary precautions. Buy only major brand names of peanuts and peanut products like nut butter. You should also throw out any nuts that appear moldy, discolored, or wrinkly.
Peanut leaves aren’t poisonous. Any peanut allergy or sensitivity comes from the peanut seed rather than the plant as a whole. Also, peanut seeds can become poisonous if exposed to aflatoxins. Peanut leaves are often used as fodder for livestock in places like the United States, Gambia, and India. They’re also used to treat insomnia and inflammation in China.
Peanut allergies are prevalent, yet there’s no clear reason why some people are allergic and others aren’t. Aflatoxin exposure in the USA is nonexistent to date.