From hummus to baked goods to sushi, sesame is a common ingredient found in foods around the world. Yet for people with an allergy to sesame, eating it can be dangerous, with reactions ranging from mild to severe.
What Is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy reaction happens when the immune system attacks a food protein that it mistakes as a threat to the body. Symptoms may include itching or swelling of the mouth, throat, face or skin; trouble breathing; and stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. A severe food allergy can be life threatening. If you think you may be allergic to sesame or another food, it is important to speak with your health care provider and get a medical diagnosis. Self-diagnosed allergies can lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions and inadequate nutrition.
Declaration of Sesame as an Allergen on Food Labels
It is estimated that around 1 million Americans have a sesame allergy. Yet, until recently, sesame was not considered to be one of the major food allergens in the United States. Previously, there were only eight major food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — which were required by law to be clearly listed on most packaged foods sold in the U.S. Some foods and beverages are not covered by this legislation, including meat, poultry and egg products, alcoholic beverages, fresh fruits and vegetables and most foods sold without a label, such as in a restaurant.
The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act, or FASTER Act, signed into law by President Biden on April 23, 2021, named sesame as the ninth major food allergen in the U.S. and requires it to be declared on food labels beginning January 1, 2023. However, foods that were made and distributed before 2023 may still be available for purchase and may not show sesame as a food allergen. These foods could refer to sesame by many names on an ingredient label, making it difficult to identify in a product. It also may be hidden as a “natural flavor” or “spices” in an ingredient statement.
Food Industry Compliance
Foods that are produced in 2023 and include sesame must list it on a food label in one of two ways:
- Include a “Contains” statement after or near the ingredient list naming the food allergen.
Example: Contains: milk, soy, sesame
- Include the common or usual name in the list of ingredients, followed by the food source of a major allergen in parentheses. If the allergen is already listed on the ingredient statement elsewhere, it is not required to be listed twice.
Example: Gingelly (Sesame)
Example: Sesame Seeds
Example: Gingelly (Sesame), Tahini
Food companies may use the same equipment to produce multiple products, which could lead to cross-contact of allergens. Cross-contact is when the food allergen is transferred to a food meant to be allergen-free. Some manufacturers may choose to reveal this potential cross-contact with a “may contain (allergen)” or “produced in a facility with (allergen)” statement, although these statements are not required in the U.S.
More Than Food
In addition to food, sesame can be found in items including cosmetics, medications, nutritional supplements, perfumes and pet foods. Typically, sesame is labeled with the scientific name “Sesamum indicum” on these items. People with a sesame allergy may experience a reaction from contact with these items. Except for dietary supplements, non-food items do not have the same labeling requirements.
Healthful Eating with a Sesame Allergy
When eating away from home, pack allergen-free foods with you, read restaurant menus online and ask questions before ordering to find out how menu items are prepared and what ingredients are used. Continue to review ingredients on food labels, because formulations can change, and contact food manufacturers with specific questions. Experiment with alternative ingredients in recipes that call for sesame products and consider consulting a registered dietitian nutritionist to develop a healthful eating routine while avoiding sesame. Since individuals who are diagnosed with food allergies need to avoid products that contain those food allergens, an RDN can make sure they are getting the recommended amount of nutrients that are needed for good health.
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