Photo of sesame seeds in wooden ladle

The “Food 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.

As a result of the new law, some food manufacturers and restaurants decided to add sesame to more of 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 with other foods or equipment using sesame.

While this action is not illegal, it goes against the intention of the FASTER Act. Many people allergic to sesame are unaware that certain foods may now include sesame. They have reported allergic reactions. It’s causing anxiety because they are unsure what they are eating is safe.

For now, patients and families will have to be more vigilant in reviewing food labels. They may have to contact food manufacturers and restaurants to confirm the foods they make or serve do not have sesame. Food manufacturers or distributors are typically listed on labels.

Allergy & Asthma Network is partnering with other food allergy groups to raise awareness of this issue.

  • The groups submitted concerns to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They urged the creation of a food allergen labeling policy that is mandatory, consistent and evidence-based.
  • The Network is also supporting the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petition submitted to FDA. The petition asks FDA to clarify that the practice of adding allergens to avoid cross contact violates food safety rules.
  • The Network helped garner support for a letter led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to the American Bakers Association. Wyden condemned the practice of adding sesame to food products that previously did not have it. He urged the Association to put in place safety control measures. Wyden is working with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and other members of Congress to address the issue in the U.S. Department of Agriculture spending bill for 2024.

At Allergy & Asthma Day Capitol Hill (AADCH) on May 3, advocates brought attention to the sesame labeling issue. They shared personal stories in meetings with members of Congress. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) representatives urged House and Senate members of Congress to clarify sesame labeling.

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. Erin is the founder of AllergyStrong, a nonprofit that offers 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.

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 allergies. Many believe this is due to the increased prevalence of international cuisine on American plates.

Sesame allergy has also 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

Prior to the FASTER Act, the FDA 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?

As part of implementing the FASTER Act, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a review of food allergy prevention policies, treatments and research. They also established 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 to be listed on food labels. These foods include corn, mustard, sunflower seeds and poppy seeds. Many other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, list more allergens on food labels than the United States.

Reviewed by
Purvi Parikh, MD, FACAAI
is an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist at Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill in New York City. She is on faculty as Clinical Assistant Professor in both departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.