- Sesame allergies are becoming increasingly common in the United States.
- Allergic reactions to sesame can be severe: A recent study found that one-third of sesame-allergic children reported one or more ER visits related to a food allergy in the past year.
- The Food and Drug Administration requires food manufacturers to include the top eight allergens on food labels, but not sesame, which is No. 9.
- Based on the growing number of people with sesame allergies and the danger of such reactions, the FDA should add sesame to its allergen labelling requirements.
Last month, my 8-month-old son had his first bite of hummus off the tip of a baby spoon. Within two minutes, his body went into anaphylaxis.
He vomited. He broke out in hives. He had trouble breathing.
We were fortunate to have an EpiPen on hand – the emergency room doctor later told us that the quick administration of epinephrine saved his life.
My son is one of at least 300,000 people in the US with an allergy to sesame. Sesame is now the ninth most common food allergen, after the “Big 8”: milk, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fish, wheat, and soy.
Reactions to sesame can be dangerous. Sesame ranks seventh among food allergens in terms of severity for kids, with one-third of children with sesame allergies reporting ER visits in the past year, according to a 2018 report from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Among all children with food allergies surveyed, 19% had visited an ER due to an allergic reaction in the past year.)
And while it’s difficult to track the prevalence of sesame allergies in the US, experts say they are on the rise along with food allergies more generally. There were nearly five times as many ER visits due to severe allergic reactions in 2016 as there were in 2007, according to an analysis of health insurance claims by nonprofit FAIR Health.But for reactions to tree nuts and seeds – the category that includes sesame – that number was even higher, with seven times as many ER visits.
“Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the US,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in October. “A handful of studies, for example, suggest that the prevalence of sesame allergies in the US is more than 0.1%, on par with allergies to soy and fish.”
The FDA has required food manufacturers to include the top-eight allergens on food labels since 2004. It’s beyond time for the agency to add sesame – the ninth-most common allergen – to that list.
Right now, sesame can appear on food labels using terms like “spices” and “natural flavoring,” or under alternate names like “tahini” (a sesame paste that’s common in Middle Eastern foods like hummus).
That makes it impossible to identify sesame in the thousands of food products that are sold in US supermarkets. While some companies, like General Mills, do label for sesame, many other manufacturers do not.
Not only would adding sesame as an explicit ingredient on food packaging potentially save lives, it could also eliminate some of the anxiety people with sesame allergies experience every time they reach for a food on the grocery store shelf.
The FDA has already taken its first step toward adding sesame to its list of allergens that need to be declared on food labels. In October 2018, it put out a request for information about sesame allergies in the US and existing practices for labelling foods that contain sesame.
There are already more than 1,500 comments in the docket. Many of them detail personal stories of how sesame allergies – and the lack of clear ingredient labelling – have caused real medical trauma for themselves and their loved ones.
But change comes slowly in a bureaucracy. The FDA’s request for comment, while encouraging, came four full years after the agency received a citizen petition seeking to add sesame to the labelling requirements. It could be years before it rolls out any new labelling requirements, if it decides to do so at all.
Other countries, including in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, have required sesame to be clearly labelled on all food packaging for years.
While he’s a baby, I can control what my son eats by cooking his meals at home. But it won’t be long before he’s eating lunch in a school cafeteria and snacking at an afternoon play date, where I’m terrified he’ll be exposed to sesame in some form.
Since becoming a mum, I’ve learned that there’s a lot we cannot control as parents. But I hope we can make life safer for children and adults who live in fear of accidentally consuming a food that contains sesame by requiring food manufacturers to disclose when it’s an ingredient in their products.
If you know someone who has been impacted by sesame allergies, or want to tell the FDA how important it is to amend its rules, you can comment here. You can also report adverse sesame reactions to the CSPI here to help them compile accurate statistics on the prevalence of sesame allergies.