Photo of sesame seeds in wooden ladle

TheFood Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Under the law, food manufacturers are now required to include sesame on food labels and dietary supplements. They must list sesame in plain language as a potential allergen.

During the first few months of 2023, shoppers may still find food items for sale that do not yet list sesame as an allergen. These foods may have been on grocery store shelves or were shipped to grocery stores prior to the start of the year. FDA advises sesame allergy patients and families to “proceed with caution” during this transition phase.

To be completely sure a food does not contain sesame (or any other allergen), FDA recommends you contact the manufacturer or distributor listed on the label.

Why is labeling of foods containing sesame important?

Sesame is often hidden in foods. It can pose a serious health risk to those allergic to it. Allergic reactions to sesame can be severe and lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition.

“Of all the foods my son is allergic to, it’s sesame that causes the most problems – by far,” says food allergy mom Erin Malawer, founder of AllergyStrong, a nonprofit that provides practical food allergy management advocacy and advice. “Sesame is in a lot of different foods. Of all the food allergies he wishes to outgrow, sesame is at the top of the list.”

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires the major food allergens to be listed, in plain English, on food labels. The top food allergens include:

  • peanut
  • tree nuts
  • soy
  • wheat
  • egg
  • cow’s milk
  • fish
  • shellfish

Thanks to the FASTER Act, sesame now joins the list of major food allergens.

As a result of the new sesame labeling requirements, some food manufacturers and restaurants are actually adding sesame to their food products. They say it is “simpler and less expensive” to add sesame to a food product and then label it, rather than try to avoid cross contact (also called cross contamination) with other foods or equipment using sesame.

While this action is not illegal, it certainly goes against the intention of the FASTER Act. Patients and families will have to be more vigilant in reviewing food labels. They will have to confirm with food manufacturers and restaurants that foods they make or serve are not cooked with sesame.

How common is sesame allergy?

Sesame allergy is the ninth most common food allergen. It is estimated to be as common as soy and fish allergies, and some tree nut allergies.

Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States have sesame allergy, according to the National Institutes of Health. It’s common among U.S. children with other food allergies, occurring in 17% of this group. Severe allergic reactions to sesame are common among children. An estimated 20-30% of children will outgrow their sesame allergy.

Sesame allergy is growing at a faster rate in the United States than other food allergy. Many believe this is due to the increased prevalence of international cuisine on American plates.

Sesame allergy has increased over the years in part due to the growing number of products containing sesame seeds and sesame oil. These include:

  • foods
  • cosmetics
  • lotions
  • pharmaceutical items

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently found that 25% of severe allergic reactions to sesame were from products that did not list sesame. Almost half of the people who suffered severe allergic reactions required medical attention.

How do you read a label for sesame allergy?

If you are diagnosed with an allergy to sesame, it’s important to stay vigilant. Avoid products that contain sesame ingredients or products that may contain traces of sesame.

Some ingredients to watch for:

  • benne, bene seed, benniseed
  • gingilly, gingilly oil
  • sesamol, sesamolina, sesamum indicum
  • sim
  • tahini
  • til
  • vegetable oil
  • natural flavoring
  • spice
  • seasoning

The tricky part about sesame allergy is that sesame may be listed under a variety of names including generic terms like “flavoring,” “spices” and “seasoning.” Each of these terms may mean sesame is hidden in a food.

Traces of sesame may be present when a food product is made on equipment shared with other foods that contain sesame. It will continue to be important to call food manufacturers to determine if a product is made on shared equipment and may contain sesame that is not listed on the label.

Traces of sesame may be present if you see an advisory statement (also known as precautionary statements) for sesame on a package. One example is “may contain sesame,” though there are many other variations. Check with your allergy specialist to determine whether you should avoid foods with advisory statements for sesame. Advice can vary depending on the particular allergen and the individual with the food allergy.

What are foods to avoid with a sesame allergy?

Sesame is commonly found in Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cuisines; it also offers protein in vegetarian dishes. Sesame can be found in:

  • salad dressing
  • hummus
  • marinades
  • sushi
  • certain cereals such as granola and muesli
  • granola bars
  • as an ingredient in (not just on) hamburger buns and baked goods
  • beauty products such as lip balms and lotions.

What are symptoms of sesame allergy?

Allergic reactions to sesame can be severe. Symptoms can include:

  • hives
  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling in the throat
  • vomiting
  • anaphylaxis

People diagnosed with severe sesame allergy should always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors in the event of an accidental exposure.

Now that the FASTER Act is law, what’s next?

The FASTER Act goes into effect on January 1, 2023. That’s when food manufacturers will be required to include sesame on food labels and list it in plain language as a potential allergen.

Between now and Jan. 1, 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is required to do a thorough review of food allergy prevention policies, treatment options and research. They are also required to establish a regulatory process and framework to determine how food can be classified as a major food allergen.

This is important because it could open the door for other less-common food allergens – corn, mustard, sunflower seeds and poppy seeds, for example – to be listed on food labels. Many other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, list more allergens on food labels than the United States.