You may not know this, but about 15 million Americans, including an estimated 5.9 million children are believed to have food allergies. Those allergies can range in severity and symptoms, from having itchy lips while eating apples, to severe life-threatening breathing problems after ingestion of peanuts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which keeps a close eye on potential food allergy threats, is considering adding another food to the list of allergens that food manufacturers must declare on their labels: sesame seeds.
The Top Eight
A recent statement released by the FDA Commissioner explained that more and more frequently the organization is seeing evidence of a growing number of people with sesame allergies and the need for requiring labeling on packaging to alert consumers about the presence of sesame seeds. If the FDA does indeed add sesame seeds to its list of food allergens, it will join the current list of eight common food allergens, which include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
What’s the Danger?
Currently, because sesame isn’t recognized as a major allergen, companies do not have to disclose whether sesame or sesame products, such as oil or tahini, are included. If sesame isn’t explicitly labeled as an ingredient, it might put people in danger of ingesting the allergen, as not everyone knows, for example, that tahini is made from sesame. Currently, sesame may be included on a label under the general terms “spices” or “natural flavors.” Preliminary studies suggest that more than 0.1 percent of the U.S. population might have a sesame allergy – about the same number as people with an allergy to soy or fish – and as little as 100 mg of sesame can trigger a reaction in some people. Quality of life is an issue for anyone with a food allergy. The FDA Commissioner’s statement noted that not knowing whether a food contains a potentially life-threatening allergen can lead people to unnecessarily alter or limit their diet to avoid potential exposure.
What Is Being Done?
Having sesame added to the list of major food allergens is now in the preliminary stages. It was prompted by a citizen-initiated petition to the FDA to take a closer look at the number of people sesame allergies affect. The first part of the process includes gathering information not only from the affected community, but also from epidemiologists, allergy researchers, nutritionists, and physicians about the research, clinical experience, and personal findings in dealing with this particular allergy. The FDA also is accepting feedback from the food industry to help determine the type of financial impact the potential regulations might have long term.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union already require sesame to be labeled as an allergen on food products. If the FDA adds sesame to the top allergen list, it will make it easier for people with this food allergy to shop and cook. Products will be required to have a clear label that indicates they include sesame. Manufacturers will also have to indicate if there is a risk of cross-contamination with sesame during manufacturing.
Dr. Sandberg is a board-certified Allergy specialist who cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Clear Lake Clinic, Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center, and Berthelsen Main Campus. He cares for children and adults of all ages with a wide variety of allergy and immunologic problems.