Sesame: One of Nine Major Food Allergens

Sesame is the ninth most common food allergy in the United States. Experts estimate that more than 1 million children and adults in the US are living with a sesame allergy.1

It is a protein allergy, meaning that sesame seeds contain a small protein that triggers an immune system reaction. While sesame seeds can be seen on foods such as bagels, breads, and sushi, sesame products can be hidden in many other foods.2

Symptoms of sesame allergy

The symptoms of sesame allergy can be very severe, even requiring trips to the emergency room. They include hives, difficulty breathing, swelling of the mouth and/or throat, and vomiting. Sesame can even cause a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.3

If you know that you have a sesame allergy, you should keep an epinephrine injection device, commonly called an Epi-pen, with you at all times.2

Foods that often contain sesame

If you are new to sesame allergies and not sure what foods to look out for, here are some common sesame-containing foods:2

  • Eastern and southeast Asian cuisine
  • Bakery items like bagels and rolls
  • Chips and crackers like pita chips or melba toast
  • Dipping sauces like hummus or tahini
  • Falafel
  • Flavored rice, noodles, or stir fry
  • Processed meats
  • Protein bars
  • Sushi
  • Vegetarian burgers
  • Sesame-based ingredients

If it is not clear if a food contains sesame, you will likely need to check the ingredient list. Sometimes sesame products look obvious such as:2

  • Sesame seed
  • Sesame salt
  • Sesame paste
  • Sesame oil
  • Sesame flour

However, many cultures cook with sesame and use other names for it. These ingredients can be harder to recognize. They include:2

  • Benne or benniseed
  • Gingelly or gingelly oil
  • Gomasio
  • Halvah
  • Sesemolina
  • Tahini or tahina or tehina

Flavors or spice blends can also contain sesame. However, spice blends are often considered “proprietary information,” essentially a secret recipe. If you are concerned that a food may have sesame, you can contact the food manufacturer and ask.2

Updates to sesame allergen labeling

The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021 was officially put into effect on January 1, 2023. Before this, food manufacturers followed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA).3

FALCPA stated that the food labels were required to report if the food contained any of the top 8 food allergens. These include:1,3

  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

The FASTER Act changed this. It adds sesame to the list of reported allergens.3

How to stay safe

The goal of the FASTER act was to make food labels safer for those living with food allergies. However, there may be some obstacles. One thing to keep in mind is that FASTER affects foods that are labeled on or after January 1, 2023. Foods with long shelf lives may still be in the grocery store unlabeled.4

Also, companies may change their recipes at any time. It is important to check the label every time you buy something to make sure it has not changed.4

Traces of sesame can be found in foods if that food is made on equipment that previously had sesame on it. This is called cross-contamination.3

Unfortunately, after the FASTER act was passed, some food manufacturers decided to add sesame to their products. They felt that it would be too difficult and expensive to change their equipment to avoid cross-contamination with sesame products. They said it would be easier and cheaper to add sesame and label the foods.3

Adding sesame to foods instead of avoiding cross-contamination is not illegal. However, it is frustrating and can cause anxiety for those living with sesame allergy. The Allergy and Asthma Network is joining with other allergy groups to raise awareness about the sesame labeling issue.3

Though life with a food allergy can be stressful, you are not alone. There are many food allergy support groups and you can always reach out to your care team. If you think that you or a loved one are living with a sesame allergy or if you have more questions, speak to your doctor.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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