- Although previous studies have suggested sesame allergies impact about 0.2% of Americans, new research published in JAMA this week estimates as many as 0.49% — or 1.6 million Americans — could be allergic to the seed.
- The new research was part of a national food allergy study of nearly 80,000 individuals from October 1, 2015 to September 31, 2016. Researchers sent out surveys on food allergy diagnoses and symptoms to more than 50,000 households.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering making sesame the ninth addition to the list of top allergens. This study indicates the allergen affects nearly double the number of individuals that previous studies indicated.
Food allergies continue to rise in the U.S., and sesame has become an ingredient of particular concern. Last year, the FDA announced it would begin the process to study how prevalent and dangerous sesame allergies are. These latest results could influence the agency's decision.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement following the announcement of the investigation last year a "handful of studies, for example, suggest that the prevalence of sesame allergies in the U.S. is more than 0.1%, on par with allergies to soy and fish." These results indicate it could be almost five times that.
These new numbers should get companies who use sesame in their recipes to pay attention. The seed could shortly be in the company of the other eight major allergens — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — which cause 90% of serious reactions.
Sesame allergies can be particularly pesky because they are often hidden behind labels such as "natural flavors" or "spices," according to the FDA. The seed is becoming more prevalent in food because of the surge in ethnic cuisine and consumer interest in alternative oils. Oil made from sesame seeds has become popular among U.S. consumers, especially since it's used so much in Southeast Asian cooking.
As the ingredient has become more prevalent in food products, more people are exhibiting allergic symptoms. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, sesame seeds cause one of the most serious reactions, with more adults requiring emergency room visits for it in 2017 than any other food allergy.
The increase in reactions to sesame seeds isn't isolated to the U.S. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Canada already require packaged foods to prominently label sesame as a potential allergen. While the U.S. has not officially required the ingredient to be labeled, the FDA appears to be heading in that direction.
Though it is not a requirement, manufacturers can take a proactive approach and start calling out sesame in their products. For some, that could be a simple stamp that indicates that products are sesame-free. For others, it could be a more complicated process requiring nuanced decisions on whether to reconfigure plants to treat products with sesame like those made with peanuts or other allergens, or if the ingredient should be removed altogether.
Even though it may require an investment in logistics and new packaging, consumers who are allergic, and even those who are conscientious about avoiding allergens in the products they buy will likely reward companies for their efforts.