Effective January 1, 2023, sesame has been added to the list of major food allergens according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The change is a result of the FASTER Act (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research), which became law in April 2021.
Sesame joins eight other major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. The original list dates back to 2004 as a response to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act.
This update is “a game changer” for people with a sesame allergy, says Ruchi S. Gupta, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine at the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.
“Now if a product contains sesame it will get the same kind of labeling treatment as peanuts or milk. It will be clearly labeled either in the ingredient list in bold letters, or underneath it will say ‘Contains sesame,’” Dr. Gupta says.
Sesame Allergy Has Become More Common
Gupta was the lead author of a study on sesame allergy prevalence that informed the FDA’s decision. The research, published in JAMA Network Open in August 2019, found that sesame is the ninth most common allergen in the United States, impacting about 1.5 million adults and children, or about 1 in 200 people.
“Over the past several years, there’s been a growing awareness that sesame allergy has become more common, not just the United States, but also in Europe and other parts of the world,” says Gupta. Research to identify the reason for the rise is ongoing, she adds.
Sesame Allergy Can Cause Severe Reactions
About 80 percent of people with a sesame allergy also have another food allergy, and close to one-third have had a severe allergic reaction and used the emergency medication epinephrine, says Gupta.
When a person with a sesame allergy has a sesame exposure, proteins in the sesame bind to specific IgE antibodies made by the person’s immune system, according to FARE (Food Allergy Safety and Education). This triggers an immune response that can cause mild to severe symptoms, says Gupta.
Sesame Often Hides in Plain Sight
One reason that this labeling change is important is that sesame is often a ‘hidden’ ingredient. “It’s often not easy to tell if sesame is actually in certain foods, such as tahini, hamburger buns, sauces, dressings, or desserts — it can be hard to avoid,” explains Gupta.
The lack of clarity can lead to accidental ingestion, which can be dangerous for people with a sesame allergy, she says.
Some Products on Store Shelves May Still Contain Unlabeled Sesame
Foods produced prior to a specified date, including those already on retail shelves, do not need to be removed or relabeled to declare sesame as an allergen, according to an FDA statement.
That means depending on shelf life, some foods may not have allergen labeling for sesame after the new law takes effect. Consumers should check with the manufacturer if they are not sure whether a food product contains sesame, per the FDA.
Advisory Statements Are Voluntary and May Not Change
Consumers should be aware that the new requirement may not change the advisory statement that sometimes appears on food labels. That’s the statement on the box that reads “may contain [allergen] or “produced in a facility that also uses [allergen].”
These statements aren’t required by law — they are voluntary, says Gupta.
According to the FDA, manufacturers can use these statements to address unavoidable “cross-contact” when producing foods containing allergens in the same facility or with shared equipment. But manufacturers can only add a statement if they have incorporated good manufacturing processes in their facility and have taken every precaution to avoid cross-contact.
New Law May Have an Unintended Result: An Increase in the Number of Foods Containing Sesame
Although the aim of the new federal law is to help people with sesame allergies, an unintended consequence may be an increase in the number of foods with sesame, according to an AP report.
Some food makers say that it’s simpler and less expensive to add sesame to a product and to label it than to try to avoid cross-contact.
As a result, several companies, including national restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Wendy’s, and Chick-fil-A and bread makers that supply grocery stores and serve schools, are adding a small amount of sesame flour to foods that didn’t previously contain the ingredient.
Although this practice doesn’t break any laws, advocacy groups say it violates the spirit of the FASTER act, which is to make foods safer for people with a sesame allergy.
It’s disappointing and frustrating that companies would rather add small amounts of sesame flour to their bakery products than comply with the intent of the FASTER ACT, says Jason Linde, senior vice president of government and community affairs at FARE, in a statement.
“By taking this approach, they have turned their backs on some of their most loyal customers by ruining previously safe food, and made life even more difficult for our families,” says Linde.