A rise in sesame allergies has caused a stir in the food industry in recent years, with the US government stepping in to help protect consumers from the potentially dangerous ingredient. The FDA recently issued guidance on declaring sesame as an allergen and the Senate recently passed the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act, which would require sesame labeling on food products.
What’s behind this potentially serious allergen and what is the food industry doing to help keep consumers safe?
Insight into the allergy
Sesame is the ninth most common food allergen among American children and adults, and can cause different reactions when ingested by someone who is allergic to it, ranging from itchiness and stomach upset to more severe hives or anaphylaxis. Roughly 1.6 million Americans suffer from a sesame allergy, according to research from JAMA Network, which represents far more consumers than previously thought.
A team of researchers, including epidemiologist Christopher Warren, learned that one in three people with the allergy had to go to the emergency room when exposed to sesame, and also that the likelihood of being diagnosed with the allergy is relatively low. Warren also told NPR that avoiding sesame can be trickier than avoiding other major allergens since it is often added to condiments or used in small amounts in condiments like salad dressings.
Where the government stands
While sesame isn’t officially counted as one of the top eight allergens that requires food product label disclosure in the US, the federal government is making strides to improve visibility. At a local level, the state of Illinois began requiring manufacturers to label sesame as an allergen in 2019. In November, the FDA offered manufacturers guidance on declaring sesame ingredients on food labels.
“Many Americans are allergic or sensitive to sesame, and they need the ability to quickly identify products that might contain sesame,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in an FDA release. “While most products containing sesame declare it as an ingredient, there are times when sesame is not required to be declared by name on the label, such as when it is used as a ‘flavor’ or ‘spice.’”
Mayne also explained that ingredients such as tahini, which is made from sesame, aren’t always properly labeled. “In these instances, sesame may not be declared by name in the ingredient list on a product’s label,” she said in the guidance. “We are encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily list sesame as an ingredient whenever a product has been made with sesame.”
More recently, the FASTER Act unanimously passed in the Senate and is currently on its way to a vote in the House of Representatives. In addition to requiring plain-language labeling of sesame on food packaging, the legislation would also require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report on food allergy research as it pertains to prevention, treatment and possible cures.
Taking on labeling
At this point in time, the main way sesame allergy sufferers can protect themselves is to avoid ingestion altogether, though many worry about cross-contamination and a lack of proper package labeling. Manufacturers such as General Mills already disclose when sesame is contained within one of its products, as well as when it might be unintentionally included.
Correct and thorough labeling can be a boon for manufacturers big and small. Food allergy consumers make up $19 billion in potential sales, but 55% of those consumers believe today’s labels are confusing and spend several minutes examining packaging to see if products are safe for their families, according to non-governmental organization Food Allergy Research & Education.
FARE believes creating standardized labeling across manufacturers, launching more allergy-friendly products and improved consumer education and engagement can all lead to a better foothold in this lucrative market.
“Currently, precautionary labeling is voluntary and inconsistent, which is confusing for consumers and stressful for those with food allergies who rely on information about what is in their food, especially regarding allergens,” Ruchi Gupta, MD, medical adviser for public health and education at FARE, said in a news release.
“Taking time to fully understand the food allergy consumer has shown us that there is a simple and cost-effective solution: if companies create a standardized labeling structure for the top nine allergens, those with food allergies will be able to confidently choose more safe food options for their families,” Gupta said.
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