The Food and Drug Administration took its first step Monday to requiring food labels to warn people if a product contains sesame.
The agency is considering adding sesame to its current list of eight common food allergens, which include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
“Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the U.S.,” FDA Commissioner Dr. 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 percent, on par with allergies to soy and fish.”
Consumer groups including the group Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE, have been asking the FDA to add sesame to the list of ingredients that must be disclosed on product labels.
“Because sesame is not recognized as a major allergen, right now it’s not required to be declared as an allergen on food labels. In fact, it may not always be specifically listed in the ingredient statement,” Gottlieb said.
Sesame might be in a product, but a label may say only that a product contains “natural flavors” or “spices." Flavorings are often considered proprietary trade secrets and restaurants and food manufacturers often do not say what they use as flavoring.
Plus, many foods that contain sesame as a main ingredient don’t ever say so. Tahini, an oily paste that’s the basis for many Middle Eastern foods including falafel, is one example. Halvah is another. And sushi is often rolled in sesame seeds. Bread products also often contain sesame.
The FDA’s first step to requiring the listing is a request for information. The agency wants first to determine how common sesame allergies are, and how many foods contain sesame.
“Thousands of Americans experience life-threatening, food-related reactions each year, and an estimated 20 people die from them annually. In some cases, such reactions occur despite a careful reading of packaged food labels by conscientious consumers,” Gottlieb said.
“In addition to our growing concerns about sesame allergies, this request for information is designed, in part, to help inform our response to a citizen’s petition to the FDA from medical professionals and consumer advocacy groups who asked us to require that sesame-based ingredients be listed specifically by name on the ingredient lists of all food labels,” Gottlieb said.
Food allergies are on the rise across the U.S., research shows.
Undeclared milk is the chief cause of reactions from undeclared allergens, FDA researchers say.
"If you think that you are experiencing an allergic reaction to sesame or ingredients made from sesame, stop eating the food or beverage, seek immediate treatment, and let your health care provider know. Keep any food packages because they may contain important information," the FDA advised.