Photo of sesame seeds in wooden ladle

What’s the latest news regarding sesame allergy labeling?

On November 17th, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Food Allergy Safety, Education and Research (FASTER) Act.  The legislation would improve the health and safety of those living with food allergies and related disorders. This bill would require labels to list sesame as an allergen.

This bill is still working its way through Congress and is not law yet. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory agency responsible for assuring foods sold in the U.S. are safe and properly labeled, took some action regarding sesame labeling this month.

On Nov. 10, 2020, the FDA issued draft guidance encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily include sesame in the ingredient list on food labels.

Allergy & Asthma Network views this as an important first step in helping consumers avoid products that may otherwise contain hidden sesame ingredients.

The Network has been advocating to Congress and FDA on the need to require sesame on manufacturer labels to provide a greater level of food safety to those allergic to sesame since 2017. Network comments to FDA and those comments submitted with food allergy stakeholders reiterated how critically important it is to declare sesame as an allergen. Our comments also emphasized the need for standards for manufacturer labels to relieve families of the burdens of researching, avoiding products, and fearing reactions from unlabeled sesame.

FDA is accepting comments on the draft guidance through Jan. 11, 2021. Allergy & Asthma Network will be submitting formal comments to represent the voice of the community.  We encourage you to submit your sesame labeling comments online or through mail as well.

Why is labeling of foods containing sesame important?

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires the top  food allergens to be listed, in plain English, as an ingredient on labels. Those top 8 food allergens include:

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

Sesame has emerged in recent years as a common food allergen in the United States, but it is not among the top 8 allergens. So, manufacturers are not required to list sesame in plain English on labels. Therefore, it can be hidden in foods and pose a risk to those allergic to sesame.

“Many Americans are allergic or sensitive to sesame, and they need the ability to quickly identify products that might contain sesame,” Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a press release. “While most products containing sesame declare it as an ingredient, there are times when sesame is not required to be declared by name on the label, such as when it is used as a flavor or spice. Other ingredients, like ‘tahini,’ are made by grinding sesame into a paste, but not all consumers are aware that tahini is made from sesame. In these instances, sesame may not be declared by name in the ingredient list on a product’s label.”

Community Perspectives

“Under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which does not cover sesame, families like ours could never be sure a product was safe just by looking at the ingredient label. The new FDA guidance urging manufacturers to label for sesame encourages transparency and will help consumers make informed decisions about the safety of their food. This is a meaningful step for patients who rely on the accuracy of ingredient labels for their health.”

— Erin Malawer, food allergy advocate, author of the Allergy Shmallergy blog and founder of Allergy Strong.

 

How common is sesame allergy?

Sesame allergy is often called the ninth food allergen and it is estimated to be as prevalent as soy and fish allergies.

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.

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

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
  • granola bars
  • as an ingredient in (not just on) hamburger buns and baked goods
  • beauty products such as lip balms and lotions.

How do you read a label for sesame allergy?

Some ingredients to watch for:

  • benne, bene seed, benniseed
  • gingilly, gingilly oil
  • sesamol, semolina, 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.”

The new guidance now encourages manufacturers to voluntarily identify sesame on the label, which will be helpful in avoiding those products. But it is not a requirement. So, it will continue to be important to call the manufacturers to determine if a product contains sesame if it is not listed on the label.