Sesame Is Officially Considered a Major Food Allergen, According to the FDA—Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal

Photo: Stocksy/ Jeff Wasserman
For anyone that suffers from a food allergy or intolerance, the stress that is having to stand in the grocery aisles scanning the much-too-fine print on a box of cereal's ingredients list as other customers dance their way around you is an all-too-familiar feeling. Frankly, a triggering one at that.

For me, it’s sesame—which happens to be in many more packaged food items than one may initially think (ahem, hummus, teriyaki dressing, everything bagel seasoning, tahini, the list goes on). But today, we're sharing some good news and a significant win for inclusion when it comes to making this ingredient easier to spot.

Indeed, those that have a sesame-related food allergy or intolerance—which is about 1.5 million Americans—can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this commonly-used ingredient has been indoctrinated into the list of major food allergens defined by law, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In the recent statement by the FDA, as of January 1, 2023, “foods containing sesame will be subject to specific food allergen regulatory requirements, including labeling and manufacturing requirements.” The ingredient joins the list of eight other major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Moving forward, manufacturers can no longer categorize it as a “natural spice of flavor” and must explicitly list the ingredient on the label.

Why sesame being added to the list of major food allergens is a big deal for those who are sensitive to it

Sesame joined the list of major food allergens as part of the new food allergy bill President Biden signed on April 23, 2021. The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (or FASTER) Act of 2021 aims to improve surveillance and collection of data on the prevalence of food allergies and severity of allergic reactions for a specific food or food ingredients, development of effective food allergy diagnostics, and development of new therapeutics to prevent, treat, cure, and manage food allergies.

The new bill, which includes sesame, builds on the existing list of the original eight major food allergen ingredients from the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). As per the FASTER Act, sesame must be labeled by its common name. For example: In parentheses following the name of the ingredient, for example, "natural flavor (sesame)" and "tahini (sesame)," or immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement, for example, "contains sesame."

What are the common symptoms of a sesame allergy or intolerance?

According to the FDA, food allergies and other types of food hypersensitivities occur when the body's immune system reacts to certain proteins in food, which can cause food allergic reactions that vary in severity from mild symptoms involving hives and lip swelling to severe, life-threatening symptoms, often called anaphylaxis, that may include fatal respiratory problems and shock. More specifically, symptoms of sesame allergies and intolerance include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness in the throat or mouth, redness in the face, coughing, and pain in the abdomen.

Keep in mind the FDA notes that “foods already in interstate commerce before 2023, including those on retail shelves, do not need to be removed from the marketplace or relabeled to declare sesame as an allergen. So depending on shelf life, some food products may not have allergen labeling for sesame on the effective date.” They emphasize that consumers should check with the manufacturer if unsure whether a food product contains sesame until all food labels have been appropriately updated, which can take some time.

Is this a win for the food allergy community?

Tiptoeing around foods safe for those with life-threatening food allergies has been a long battle that was further heightened during the COVID-19 global pandemic that led to shutdowns, major disruptions in supply chains, and empty grocery store shelves for months on end. As many people had no choice but to swap brands or products and deviate from their usual purchases due to closures and scarcity during this time, the importance of product labeling became not only helpful but an absolute necessity.

“People who have severe allergies can only eat certain foods that are safe for them and can only choose packaged foods that are made in an allergy-safe facility. The food label cannot read ‘may contain’ due to the severity of the allergy,” Gabrielle Kahn, RD, a registered dietitian, previously shared with Well+Good. This is especially frustrating (and downright dangerous) when labels don’t explicitly list potential allergens, as was the case with sesame before the FASTER Act was introduced this year.

According to CNN, the FDA previously recommended in November 2020 that manufacturers list sesame on food labels. However, up until 2023, FDA regulations only required that sesame be declared on a label if whole seeds were used as an ingredient, not when it was used as a flavor or in a spice blend. As was the case for most tahini products, made with ground sesame paste.

And although this is a significant win for the food allergy community, more than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), impacting roughly 32 million Americans with food allergies—which haven’t been added to the FDA’s major allergen list…yet.

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