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Sesame Allergy Rule Leads to Unintended Consequences

Some restaurants, manufacturers adding it to avoid cross-contamination

spinner image sesame and black sesame seeds in wooden spoons
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To help protect individuals with sesame allergies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared the seed a “major food allergen” on Jan. 1. But that may have led to some unintended consequences.

The declaration means food companies and restaurants must implement measures to prevent sesame cross contamination and clearly label products containing the allergen. However, some food allergy experts worry manufacturers will simply add sesame to their recipes and products, allowing them to avoid dealing with cross-contamination regulations.

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“We’ve heard rumors about it but we haven’t talked to any manufacturers directly,” said Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). “We’ve just heard about reports.”

Unintended consequences

Olive Garden, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s confirmed to AARP that some of their breads now contain sesame and that they have updated their allergen guides accordingly. Chick-fil-A explained that while the company did not want to change its recipe, their suppliers were unable to guarantee that the production lines for their white and multigrain brioche buns could be completely free of sesame, and there are no bread suppliers able to provide the necessary volume of sesame-free bread. However, the restaurant chain does offer sesame-free bread options.

The difference between ‘contains’ and ‘may contain’

If a food label has a “contains” statement, it lists the names of all major allergens used as ingredients. Some manufacturers voluntarily include an advisory statement on labels, such as “may contain” or “produced in a facility,” when there is a possibility that a food allergen could be present. This often occurs when the same equipment is used to produce different products, and trace amounts of an allergen from one product may remain and be present in another.

The FDA does not have data on how much sesame is being added to ingredient lists by manufacturers, but a spokesperson stated that “while a practice of adding sesame and then declaring it on the label is not violative, it would make it more difficult for sesame allergic consumers to find foods that are safe for them to consume, a result that the FDA does not support.”

“I think what food manufacturers want to avoid is having to have a recall for improper labeling. And some are probably worried about their inability to clean their machines in an adequate way to avoid cross contamination during the manufacturing process,” Mendez said.

How to find sesame-free food

Food that was already on store shelves before 2023 will not be removed or relabeled to declare sesame as an allergen. So, depending on shelf life, some products may not be labeled for sesame despite the new labeling requirements.

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“If you’ve eaten the food before, it’s probably still OK. If you’ve never had the food before, I would avoid it.” Otherwise, a failsafe method would be to avoid manufactured or processed food, said Jonathan Spergel, chief of the allergy program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Manufacturers can still change the ingredients in their products at any time, so it’s a good idea to check the ingredient list every time you buy a product if you or someone in your household has a food allergy. If you’re not sure whether a product contains a potential allergen, it’s best to either not buy the product or ask the manufacturer directly before purchasing it, according to the FDA.

“For manufacturers this can be a positive if they could reassure the public that there is no sesame in there rather than adding it in, because there are a significant number of Americans with food allergies and sesame allergies,” Mendez said.

Other food allergens

In addition to sesame, the ingredients classified as major food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

“We recognize that food allergies are a complex public health problem impacting millions of people living in the U.S. and their families,” said an FDA spokesperson who asked not to be named by AARP. “To help protect consumers with food allergies, the FDA enforces laws that require listing of ingredients used in packaged food products so that consumers can find ingredients they are allergic, or sensitive to, in a food.”

With its new classification, the U.S. follows Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and the U.K., which already had established sesame labeling requirements. In reality, sesame is a more common allergen than some of the others on the list such as soy,   Spergel said.

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What are food allergies?

When someone ingests something they are allergic to, their body recognizes it as a threat and produces antibodies that bind to the allergen, which then bind to mast cells, triggering allergy symptoms such as rash, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing or low blood pressure. The severity of the symptoms depends on how many mast cells are released and the person’s specific allergic response, Spergel said.

For a severe or even moderate reaction, epinephrine (EpiPen) is a safe medicine that, in most instances, works quickly. Some people with mild reactions can be treated with antihistamines.

Desensitization therapy is a treatment that can help some people become less allergic to a food by slowly introducing them to small amounts of the allergen over time. This method is effective in about 60 percent of cases, but it also carries risks: Approximately 10 percent of people may experience a significant reaction, Spergel said.

It is not common for older adults to develop new food allergies as they age. However, in rare cases, certain medications can weaken the immune system and lead to food allergies. In contrast, children today are more prone to food allergies than kids were in previous generations.

“We don’t know exactly why. There’s lots of theories out there. The theories range from how we prepare the foods, the foods are different now than they were 30 years ago, how we introduce foods in the diet is different,” Spergel said. “There’s something probably that we did in the environment that changed. What exactly that thing was — whether it’s too much antibiotics, too much soap, change in our microbiome, hygiene — it’s probably a little bit of everything.”

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