- The Food and Drug Administration announced it would begin the process to study how prevalent and dangerous sesame allergies are in the U.S., as well as understand how commonly sesame-containing foods are sold in this country.
- The investigation was prompted in part by growing concern from consumers, but also in response to petitions to the FDA from medical professionals and consumer advocacy groups who have been campaigning that sesame-based ingredients be listed specifically on all food labels with their generic name for easy identification, the agency said.
- "Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the U.S.," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. "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."
Food allergies in the U.S. are on the rise. Between the number of insurance claims filed for severe allergic reaction to food increasing 377% from 2007 to 2016, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that food allergies rose 18% among children between 1997 and 2006, it’s hard to ignore the fact that as much as Americans love food, about 4% have a tumultuous relationship with it.
Despite some experts offering mixed opinions about whether food allergies are becoming more common — consumers often misdiagnose reactions to a food and call it an allergy — there is a rise in the statistics. Today, out of 160 identified food allergens, 90% of serious reactions can be attributed to eight contentious ingredients: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
But sesame could make the cut and become number nine. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, more than 300,000 people in the U.S. suffer from a sesame allergy, making it the ninth most prevalent allergen. However, in terms of severity of typical reactions, it is the sixth or seventh most serious, with more adults requiring emergency room visits for reactions in the last year than any other food allergy.
And that is not the only report indicating that sesame should be seriously considered as an allergen. A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and quoted by CSPI called for an update of the list of major allergens, saying that the "prevalence of sesame seed allergy in the United States appears to be equivalent to the existing eight priority foods or food groups recognized in the United States among children." Although this request is new to the U.S., the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada already require packaged foods to prominently label sesame as a potential allergen.
It is not often that new allergens make the "top allergen" list. In fact, the only time that the list was altered was when it was passed as law in 2004 as the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Although legally not much has changed, consumer trends have continued to drive manufacturers to be conscientious of what they are using as ingredients.
This growing avoidance of allergens has played into the "free from" trend, which can refer to allergen-free, gluten-free and non-GMO products. According to Mintel, the number of new products carrying a low/no/reduced allergen claim increased 28% in 2014. Sesame seeds, however, have not yet made the waves that other ingredients have.
Sesame seeds may not often be a main ingredient in packaged foods, but according to the FDA they can often be found in small amounts in products with "natural flavors" or "spices" listed on their label. If the FDA determines that sesame seeds are worth adding to the list of top allergens, companies will have to rethink everything from labels to cross contamination precautions in manufacturing facilities. Some manufacturers may find that it is as simple as highlighting the fact that they are sesame-free, while others may have to reformulate their products to ensure that they are allergy friendly.
As of now, the FDA is merely taking the first step, but its findings will determine how companies will need to start thinking about sesame seeds — and other allergens — in the future. As demand continues to grow among those with food allergies and those just trying to avoid certain ingredients, consumers can expect to see more allergen- and potentially sesame-free CPGs on store shelves.