Sesame Officially Designated as Food Allergen
In 2018, we first reported that sesame could become a designated allergen class. That's now finally come to fruition.
Sesame was officially designated an allergen as the bipartisan FASTER Act was signed into law Friday by President Biden. The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act makes sesame the ninth food—joining eggs, dairy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans—that manufacturers must identify on prepackaged labels. Starting January 1, 2023, any food product containing sesame must indicate that on its label.
According to Food Dive, sesame allergies in the U.S. affect around 1.6 million people. Sesame is found in many foods you wouldn't expect, so it's important to double-check ingredient labels where they may occur. You should be especially cautious when purchasing ingredients and enjoying recipes with Asian influences, as those use sesame frequently.
"For people who have a sesame allergy, the January 1, 2023, mandatory label requirement [which Biden just passed this week] for sesame-containing foods can serve as a major sense of relief by making it much easier to identify if a food is safe for them to eat or not," says Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT.
About 45% of adults and 40% of kids who have a sesame allergy have a severe reaction, meaning they have anaphylaxis, which can lead to death. So, mistakenly eating sesame can be as serious as any of the FDA's other eight allergen classifications.
Good news, though. You may have an allergy or an intolerance (there's a difference), or simply no issues after consumption. If you seem to tolerate most foods containing sesame already, you're likely in the clear.
"It's very likely that most people have consumed sesame in some form, and although sesame allergies are on the rise, only an estimated 0.2% to less than 1% of the population have a sesame allergy, so if you haven't had a reaction to sesame, it's likely you may never," Lakatos says. "However, there are common signs to be aware of up to 90 minutes after consuming sesame, like difficulty breathing, hives, nausea, vomiting, coughing, itchiness in mouth, flushed face, and abdominal pain." If any of those signs occur, you should seek medical attention.
Where is Sesame Found?
Sesame seed and sesame seed oil are often used as a garnish (which is easier to spot), or used within the cooking process in a spread, oil, seasoning, or sauce.
"It's also found in other random foods like baked goods, pretzels, breads, pizza crusts, hamburger buns, ice cream, energy bars, soups and noodles, tahini, falafel, dressings, oils, margarine, sushi, tortillas, gravies, tempeh, and more," Lakatos says.
Cross-contamination is a big concern as well, and it can happen when you're cooking with the same knife or spoon or using one utensil for a variety of serving purposes. Think: spreading hummus and other mixed dips (like tahini) at a group gathering with the same knife.
Or perhaps you might use one spoon that is for a sesame seed chicken and broccoli dish to then scoop out a serving of honey-glazed roasted sweet potatoes at a hot or cold bar (think Whole Foods), buffet-style restaurant, a grocery or bodega-style lunch spot, or an airport food kiosk. And you never know who might be dunking one utensil into multiple bins—so even if you're on guard, you might want to avoid these types of dining spots if you are allergic and prone to severe adverse reactions. Or at least don't go for the dishes that are in the same section or near the dishes containing sesame seeds, since you're more likely to experience cross-contamination with higher proximity.
How to Enjoy Makeovers at Home
The good news is you can easily make your own versions of these Asian-inspired meals in your own kitchen, where you can guarantee you're avoiding potential for any cross-contamination.
Try making Curry-Poached Cod with Snap Pea Slaw for a delicious and healthy meal that uses olive oil instead of sesame oil—a common ingredient in curry dishes.
Or go with a Chicken, Mushroom, and Bok Choy Bowl that swaps sesame oil for canola oil, Lakatos suggests.
You can also look for sesame-free snack brands that are on the rise, such as sunflower seed butters or fava bean-based chips and roasted snacks—here's a handy roundup of our editors' favorite allergen-free snacks! Make sure you read the labels, since these snacks are based on allergen-free ingredients prior to this new designation.