Food manufacturers have until January 2023 to comply with a new law requiring them to list “sesame” on packaged food ingredient labels. A new survey finds that consumers in the meantime are struggling to figure out if products contain sesame. That confusion is leading to severe reactions in U.S. children.
Researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) collected information on 360 allergic reactions to sesame, mostly from parents describing reactions in their children. Severe reactions after accidental sesame consumption were common, and nearly half of reactions led to an emergency room visit or hospital admission.
Parents whose children reacted said a main cause of such accidental ingestion was the failure of ingredient labels on packaged foods to list sesame. In 56 percent of the cases, parents said the label failed to specify sesame in the ingredients.
Some of the labels instead showed ingredients such as “tahini” or “halva,” which are made with ground sesame seeds. However, parents didn’t realize these contained the allergen. Other products had labels that listed “spices” or “natural flavor,” but no mention of sesame.
Researchers say the findings illustrate the importance of food manufacturers moving quickly to comply with the FASTER Act. While the act became federal law in April 2021, it gives food makers until January 2023 to update their labels.
“Swifter action in labeling is so crucial for families, and awareness of sesame as a top allergen needs to be promoted for families and families of infants and children with allergies,” said Dr. Katie Kennedy, senior study author and an allergy and immunology attending physician at CHOP. “Sesame should be on people’s radar. We are seeing more seed allergy and we will probably see more as time goes on,” she said.
Hummus, Bread Crumbs to Blame
In the survey, about 69 percent of the 360 reactions met the criteria for anaphylaxis, and 36 percent of all reactions were treated with epinephrine. The study was published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
When it comes to where reactions took place, 64 percent occurred at home, 12 percent at restaurants, 5 percent at a friend’s house, and 5 percent at school. Children who reacted experienced a range of symptoms, including skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and neurologic.
In describing the incidents, one parent fed their child hummus, not realizing that it contained sesame. Another described their child reacting after eating meatloaf with apparently sesame-free breadcrumbs. But when the parent contacted the breadcrumb manufacturer, they were told the “spices” on the label contained sesame.
In another case, a parent reported that their child experienced nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain after eating pita bread, which did not list sesame as an ingredient. The parent froze the bread, and when they gave it to the child again a few months later, the child reacted again. The parent sent the pita to a laboratory for testing, which confirmed the pita contained sesame.
The FASTER Act makes sesame the ninth major allergen that has to be listed on U.S. ingredient labels. The law came after years of campaigning by food allergy advocates and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which published a report back in 2015 that described how difficult it was to determine if a food contained sesame. At the time, only three of 19 major food manufacturers labeled sesame on their products, although more food manufacturers have since begun listing sesame.
Researchers urged more food makers to do the same. About 1.5 million U.S. children and adults have a sesame allergy, and when reactions occur, they are often severe.
“Almost 70 percent of the reactions suspected to be due to sesame consumption met the criteria for anaphylaxis, as well as almost 50 percent resulted in an emergency department visit or hospitalization,” said Dr. Kim Nguyen, lead study author and an allergy and immunology fellow. “It should be a major concern for companies.”
The current top eight U.S. allergens that must be clearly labeled are: milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, wheat and soybeans. In Europe, Canada, the U.K., Israel and Australia, sesame is already recognized as a major allergen, and must be labeled.