Will Sesame Join Nuts and Dairy on Food Allergy Warning Labels?

Food allergies may not affect the vast majority of people but they are still quite common. And, for the most part, food allergies tend to elicit quite mild reactions (except for peanuts, of course).  This week, it looks like we may be adding another food source to the growing list of food allergens out there: sesame. 

A new study advises that sesame allergies may actually be far more common than we thought, affecting as many as 1.5 million Americans.  And this finding might encourage the United States Food and Drug Administration to require food companies to add new warning labels that identify the presence of sesame in foods. 

The study comes from researchers at Chicago’s Northwestern University who analyzed a nationally representative survey of more than 50,000 households.  The survey specifically examined food in the household and, particularly, whether the residents had any allergies (and if those allergies had been confirmed by a doctor).  In addition, each participant in the study was also instructed to report their symptoms during their most severe allergic reaction. 

Analyzing their responses, the researchers identified that nearly 0.5 percent of people did, in fact, report a known allergy to sesame. Also, roughly 0.25 percent were identified as having a convincing sesame allergy (experiencing at least one common symptom of food allergy—hives or throat swelling—when exposed to the allergen); another 0.11 percent were identified as having been diagnosed by their doctor but did not show any of the most common symptoms. 

Now, these may seem like incredibly miniscule amounts—and they would be, in most cases—but even when excluding those who did not exhibit symptoms (despite a diagnosis), it still amounts to approximately 1.1 million adults and children in the United States.  

Study co-author Dr. Ruchi Gupta, Northwestern University professor of pediatrics, explains, “We see sesame allergies clinically and how difficult it is for families with sesame allergies to avoid sesame, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to really dig deeper into understanding sesame allergy in the US.”

Lead study author Christopher Warren admits that sesame is a “tricky” allergen to control when it comes to food preparation.  For example, the Northwestern University Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research epidemiologist says, it is an extremely common ingredient to Japanese spices and seasonings; nearly always present. Still, the results—meager as they may seem—will likely influence further labeling specificity to ensure those who do suffer can avoid it.