Sesame allergies among Americans on the rise prompting calls for warning labels

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Sesame seeds are found on numerous food products, ranging from crackers and cereal bars, to buns and bread loaves
Sesame seeds are found on numerous food products, ranging from crackers and cereal bars, to buns and bread loaves

Related tags sesame allergens Fda Labelling

A new study by American researchers backs up an open request by Scott Gottlieb – then US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner – last year for feedback on mandating warning labels for sesame.

The new study – published in JAMA Network Open last week – has found that there may be more Americans with a sesame allergy than there are people allergic to tree nuts, like pine and macadamia nuts.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago found that 0.49% of Americans reported to have an allergy to sesame,​ based on responses to a national survey of over 50,000 households.

“Overall, a total of 0.49% of the US population, or more than 1.5 million children and adults, may have a current sesame allergy, indicating a greater perceived burden of sesame allergy than previously acknowledged,”​ wrote the authors.

This is up from research conducted more than a decade ago, which suggested that only 0.1% of consumers had a sesame allergy.

Open invitation from FDA

The study follows an open request​ last year for medical and nutritional experts to provide the FDA it with information on the prevalence of sesame allergy in the US.

Sesame labels are already mandated in the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Last July, Illinois became the first US state to follow suit.

US federal law requires that foods containing one of the eight ‘major food allergens’ – namely, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, milk, eggs, fin fish and shellfish – must declare this on the label.

Sesame is not recognized as a major allergen, so it does not need to be declared as such on product labels.

In fact, according to the researchers, products with ‘natural flavors’ or ‘spices’ listed on their labels may contain small amounts of sesame. It also escapes labelling by being referred words that may not be easily recognized by consumers as containing sesame, such as tahini.

In a statement released on October 29, 2018,​ Gottlieb wrote that “Food allergies have touched the lives of most of us. Thousands of Americans experience life-threatening, food-related reactions each year, and an estimated 20 people die from them annually.

“Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the US. Fear of not knowing whether a food contains sesame may lead some people to unnecessarily limit their diets to avoid possible exposure.”

A sesame allergy can result in severe reactions, including anaphylaxis.

On the rise

Globally, the consumption of sesame seeds has shown an upward trend of around 2% per annum, valued at $6.5bn in 2018 and projected to reach $7.2bn by 2024, according to Mordor Intelligence.

The steady demand is being driven by the growing health trend, as sesame seeds are high in vitamin, mineral, fiber, healthy fat and protein. Additionally, the increased popularity of Asian and African sesame seed-based seasonings in Europe and North America is also a factor, while cereal bars, like Sesame Honey Energy Bars, are high on demand.

“This issue of sesame allergen labeling may be increasingly important in coming years, given that sesame consumption appears to be increasing domestically and abroad,”​ wrote the authors.


Prevalence and Severity of Sesame Allergy in the United States

Authors: Christopher M. Warren, Avneet S. Chadha, Scott H. Sicherer, et al

JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(8):e199144


US prevalence of self-reported peanut, tree nut, and sesame allergy: 11-year follow-up

Authors: Sicherer SH, Muñoz-Furlong A, Godbold JH and Sampson HA

J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010 Jun;125(6):1322-6

doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2010.03.029

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