Have you noticed that sesame is being listed as an ingredient more and more explicitly on food labels?
This is because a new law, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act aka the “FASTER Act,” was signed into effect adding sesame as the ninth major food allergen.
Having a food allergy diagnosis that has not been part of the previous traditional US “top 8 food allergens” (peanut, tree nut, shellfish, fish, wheat, egg, milk, and soy) has always presented challenges and ambiguity when reading food labels.
Sesame has been such a sneaky, frustrating allergen for folks because it wasn’t always labeled or clear that it was in a product, so it was easy to have accidental ingestion.
But finally, some clarity! Individuals who have a sesame allergy are rejoicing and it seriously brings tears to my eyes as I think of all who advocated for this change and the impact it will have on so many lives.
Let’s take a look at how sesame has gained breakthrough recognition as one of the top 9 allergens and changed the food labeling industry as we know it.
Table of Contents
Is Sesame a Common Allergy?
Until recently the United States did not recognize sesame as one of the top allergens. Interestingly, many other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia (among others) have all required sesame allergy labeling for some time.
So why wasn’t sesame labeling required in the U.S.?
Sesame, at one time, was not considered that common of an allergy in the US. But, like many food allergies, the prevalence of this allergy has been growing. Sesame is one of the fastest growing food allergies worldwide.
It is now estimated that more than 1.5 million Americans are living with a sesame allergy (1).
Sesame is a common part of the diet in Asia and parts of Africa. International cuisine has increased in the American diet likely causing an increase in reported sesame allergies in the U.S.
What are the 9 Most Common Food Allergies?
The top 9 food allergens also known as the big 9 allergens in the United States are:
- Tree Nut
Because of its change in status, sesame will now be required to be listed on food package labels.
Let’s explore the significance of what that really means.
History of Food Allergy Labeling. About FALCPA, 2004
In 2004, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), identified the following foods as major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.
FALCPA requires that foods or ingredients that contain major food allergens be labeled with the name of the allergen source. I’ll briefly touch on some highlights of FALCPA.
FALCPA states that major food allergens should be listed in one of three ways:
- In the ingredient list, using the allergen’s common name. Example: Ingredients: milk.
- By citing the word “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen—for example, “Contains milk, eggs, peanuts.”
- In the ingredient list in parentheses after a less common name of the allergen- for example, “Ingredients: bean curd (soy).”
Crustacean shellfish and tree nuts must specify the type of allergen within the category (example: crab or lobster, etc. for shellfish allergy, pistachio or pecan, etc for tree nut allergy).
Unfortunately, the issue remains that any food allergen that is not considered a major food allergen (any non-FALCPA regulated allergen) such as sunflower seeds, mustard, or celery could possibly be present in a food but not be clearly labeled.
This is a common issue with terms such as “natural flavorings,” “spices,” and “seasoning” on the food label. These terms could mean that there is something in the seasoning (example: mustard) that is not disclosed.
Non-FALCPA regulated allergens may also be missed if consumers are unaware of less common names for their particular food allergen. An example would be maize which may possibly be a less known term for something that contains corn.
This raises a lot of concern for non-FALCPA allergens.
Made in a Facility/Cross Contamination Statements
Of note, food manufacturers may use equipment to produce multiple products. This may lead to cross contamination of allergens. Some manufacturers disclose this information and others do not. This is true for both FALCPA and non-FALCPA allergens.
These types of statements, unfortunately, are not required in the U.S. Call the manufacturer to learn about their manufacturing practices.
Why Labeling of Sesame as a Food Allergy Matters:
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology conducted a survey (2) that determined many food allergy reactions had taken place in sesame allergic individuals simply because of misunderstanding the food label.
A common issue was that a less common name such as “tahini” was used on the food label. Tahini contains sesame, but this may not be clear to all individuals who have a sesame allergy.
Tahini being labeled as simply “tahini” rather than “tahini (sesame)” increased possible food allergy reactions.
Consumers with a sesame allergy may also have an allergic reaction when consuming something with a “seasoning blend” that contains sesame, but was not declared on the label.
Allergen avoidance can not be successful without accurate product labeling.
Fortunately, the FASTER Act has been approved.
What is the FASTER Act?
Allergen labeling of sesame will be required under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021. Sesame food allergens are to be declared on the food label by January 1, 2023.
Not only does the FASTER Act involve regulation of food package labels, but it also requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to report on research opportunities for prevention, treatment and potential cures for food allergies.
Although there are the top nine food allergies, the FASTER Act was developed to address potential additional future allergens.
Sesame will now have the following labeling regulatory laws and should be listed on the food label in at least one of three ways:
- In the ingredient list, using the allergen’s common name (sesame).
- By citing the word “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen—for example, “Contains sesame.”
- Noting the common name of the allergen in parentheses when the ingredient is a less commonly known name of the allergen – for example, “tahini (sesame).”
Sesame food allergens are to be declared on the food label by January 1, 2023.
What to do in the Meantime?
Until January 1, 2023 you should still be cautious with statements like “natural flavorings,” “seasoning,” and “spices.” Call the manufacturer when in doubt.
The FDA has encouraged manufacturers to voluntarily declare sesame and some manufacturers may implement the FASTER Act guidelines prior to January 1, 2023.
Of course, follow best practices. Carry an epinephrine auto injector. If you have a young child with food allergies, educate them on their food allergies by reading appropriate books and having discussions about their food allergy.
FASTER Act: What about Restaurants
The FASTER Act does not require restaurants to list sesame on their menus. Prepackaged foods made and sold by commercial foodservice operations, however, would be required to list sesame on the label.
It is important to note that restaurant allergy requirements vary largely from state to state.
What foods contain sesame?
- Any foods with “sesame” in name
- Tahini, Tahina, Tehina,
- Sim sim
- Benne, benne seed, benniseed
- Gingelly, gingelly oil
- Gosmasio (sesame salt)
- Sesamum indicum
This list may not be all inclusive. Always read food labels and be sure to be extra cautious with food you have not prepared yourself.
Can I Use Sesame Oil with a Sesame Allergy?
Most likely, no. Sesame Oil is different from most other oils as it is often not highly refined. Therefore, if you have a sesame allergy you should most likely avoid sesame oil. Always talk to your Board Certified Allergist about this.
Sesame in Non-Food Items
Also, be aware that sesame may be in non-food items such as cosmetics, medications, supplements, perfume, and pet food.
What are Symptoms of a Sesame Allergy?
See a Board Certified Specialist to find out. Food allergy symptoms can vary from person to person but may include:
- Itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
Sesame is a common food allergy in the United States and worldwide. Recently sesame was added as one of the top nine food allergens in the United States.
Food Allergen Labeling Laws like FALCPA help to identify food allergens, however, there is still much room for improvement with food labeling laws as confusion remains (example: made in facility and cross contamination statements).
Food label laws with sesame is a huge step in the right direction. Clarifying less common names for sesame allergens (example: tahini) on the food label will help to save lives.
The FASTER Act will provide research opportunities for prevention, treatment and potential cures for food allergies all while addressing food allergy labeling.
Many foods contain sesame. If you think you may be allergic to sesame see a Board Certified Allergist.
Food allergy advocacy continues to be of the utmost importance.
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Last Updated on February 8, 2023 by Amber DeVore, RD, CSSD, CLT