Sesame, a tiny seed with a distinctive nutty flavor, has been a staple ingredient in many cuisines worldwide. However, it has gained new notoriety over the past decade as a major food allergen. Starting January 1, 2023, it is required to label foods containing sesame as an allergen, including dietary supplements. It becomes the ninth major allergen in the US, joining peanuts, tree nuts, crustacean shellfish, milk, eggs, soybeans, fish and wheat.
Here’s what you need to know about sesame as a food allergen.
Sesame as a Hidden Allergen
One of the challenges of managing sesame allergies is that sesame is often used as a hidden ingredient in many foods. You can find it in unexpected places like spice blends, sauces, dressings, and baked goods. For example, sesame oil is a common ingredient in Asian cuisine, while tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds, is a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. Sesame seeds are also commonly used as a garnish on bread, bagels, and crackers and are a key ingredient in sesame snaps and granola bars.
Sesame is also referred to by many names, making it difficult for consumers to identify it in a product. It can appear as benne, benne seed, benniseed, gingelly, gingelly oil, gomasio (sesame salt), halvah, sesame flour, sesame oil, sesame paste, sesame salt, sesame seed, sesamol, sesamum indicum, sesamolina, sim sim, tahini, tehina, or til. It also may be hidden as “natural flavor” or “spices” in an ingredient statement.
Sesame in Non-Food Items
Apart from food, you can find sesame in things like makeup, medicine, vitamins, perfume, and even pet food. They usually have the scientific name “sesamum indicum” written on them in such cases. If someone has a sesame allergy, they might get a reaction from touching or using these things. Unlike food items, these non-food items have different rules about labeling, so it can be harder to avoid them.
Prevalence of Sesame Allergies
While sesame allergies are not as well-known as peanut or shellfish allergies, they are more common than many people realize. There are close to 1.6 million Americans with a life-threatening sesame allergy, and in certain populations, such as those with a history of other food allergies, the prevalence of sesame allergies can be higher—over 75% of people who might have a sesame allergy also said they were allergic to one or more of the other eight most common allergens.
Managing Sesame Allergies
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with a sesame allergy, it’s important to manage the allergy and avoid exposure to sesame. This may include carrying an anti-allergic medicine at all times and educating yourself on how to read food labels to identify potential sources of sesame. It may also be helpful to speak with a registered dietitian or allergist to develop a personalized plan for managing your sesame allergy.
For food manufacturers, the FDA’s decision to declare sesame a major food allergen means they must ensure their products are free from sesame or clearly labeled as containing sesame. This may include revising ingredient lists, updating manufacturing processes, and training employees to identify and manage potential allergen cross-contact.
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