Most people are familiar at this point with food allergens – like peanuts, dairy, eggs, and shellfish – but there are similarly severe food allergens out there that companies aren’t required to list on labels. Sesame allergies, specifically, need to get more attention. Experts say that allergies to sesame seeds are on the rise, and the reactions can be just as severe as a peanut allergy.
Déjà was at a wedding with her husband and her then two-year-old son, who we’ll refer to as Aiden for the sake of his privacy. Aiden was a good eater, and he’d been exposed to common allergens before, so they let him try whatever he wanted at the wedding. Suddenly, he started to cough, gag, and vomit. They rushed him to the ER, where he received epinephrine and Benadryl, and the doctors confirmed that it was an allergic reaction to food.
When they returned home, Déjà took Aiden to an allergist who tested for some of the top eight allergens, but everything turned up negative. It wasn’t until they got a second opinion – and a full panel – that they discovered Aiden’s sesame seed allergy.
“The allergist told us that sesame allergy was on the rise,” Déjà told me in an email. She also learned that he’s allergic to peanuts and tree nuts during subsequent tests, even though they came back negative in that first round of testing.
Sesame allergies have been becoming more and more common since at least the early 2000s. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Americans (pdf) have sesame allergies, yet the FDA does not require companies to list them on food labels. Canada does require companies to label products containing sesame.
People dealing with a sesame allergy, like Aiden, can’t just look for bolded allergy information on ingredients lists. In fact, only top eight allergens need to be listed by name on a label at all. The top eight food allergens in the U.S. are:
- tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, walnuts)
Sesame isn’t easy to spot. It can be listed as “natural flavoring” or “spices,” so people with sesame allergies have to be hyper vigilant about what they eat. Imagine if, before buying a box of crackers, you had to call the company to check whether the spices or flavorings on the label were hiding something that could hospitalize or even kill you or your child.
“One time my son had a mild allergic reaction to a cracker,” Déjà told me. “Sesame was not listed as an ingredient on the package, but it did list ‘natural flavor,’ so I called the company. They said that while the natural flavor did not have sesame, they do process other products containing sesame and there could be cross-contamination from those products.”
She also says that it can be hard to get people to take her son’s sesame allergy as seriously as they’d take something more well-known, like a peanut allergy, even though it’s just as dangerous. Most people also don’t know what foods – like hummus or certain candies – contain sesame, and they’re not as vigilant about label-reading as they would be for other food allergies. She told me that, “While my son has both nut and sesame allergies, in the past five years we have had more reactions due to accidental sesame exposure.”
Like any other food allergy, sesame allergies can also be isolating. At many schools, kids with sesame allergies sit at a special “allergy kid table.” This does help keep kids with food allergies safer, but it also makes them feel singled out.
Since sesame allergies aren’t as well-known, those kids feel even more isolated. At parties, parents will often label things that contain peanut, soy, or dairy, but people rarely think to label sesame-free snacks. Déjà says that Aiden will often just not eat at parties, so he can avoid asking what is in the food. Going out to eat can also be a challenge, since sesame – sesame oil for frying or flavor, for example – can often be invisible on menus.
There was a push to get sesame onto food labels, but it seems like it has fallen flat. The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2015 would have required that companies label products containing sesame, but it appears to have stalled out in committee. A message to Senator Lamar Alexander’s press office – the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor, Health, and Pensions – about the act was not returned.
The good news is that allergists and some food companies are getting more sensitive to sesame allergies. Enjoy Life Foods products are all sesame free, because they are free from all of Canada’s 12 priority food allergens. Déjà also says that Disney is great about accommodating a sesame allergy. For now, when foods aren’t labeled as sesame free, people with allergies have to call the company to be sure.
If you suspect that you or your child has is allergic to sesame seeds, make an appointment with an allergist as soon as possible to get tested.