The famous Olive Garden breadsticks are once again sesame-free. The popular chain restaurant recently switched suppliers, so the customer favorite is made with flour – with no added sesame.
Olive Garden was among several national eateries with bread products that suddenly contained sesame as of the end of 2022. This occurred as commercial bakeries that supply restaurants started intentionally adding sesame to products – just as a new law made sesame a U.S. top allergen.
Under the FASTER Act, which took effect January 1, 2023, manufacturers are required to clearly label sesame as a top allergen when it’s an ingredient. To get around cross-contact and potential recall risks, the baking industry has widely adopted a practice of “adding sesame”.
This practice has frustrated many in the food allergy community. The growing use of sesame flour puts foods suddenly off-limits for consumers with a sesame allergy.
This is why Olive Garden’s announcement that it switched suppliers is such welcome news in the food allergy community.
“FARE is grateful that sesame-allergic individuals and their families can once again enjoy the restaurant’s wonderful breadsticks,” says Jason Linde, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of advocacy.
Olive Garden certainly heard concerns over the breadsticks suddenly containing sesame, says Rich Jeffers, senior director of communications for Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden.
“It was always our intent to identify alternative sources to ensure our breadsticks did not contain sesame flour,” Jeffers told Allergic Living.
Seed of Sesame Change
In less than a year since the “added sesame” issue emerged, Olive Garden is taking the lead in finding a way to provide food that is safe for its guests with a sesame allergy.
The chain is working with multiple suppliers to ensure that all of its nearly 900 locations now have sesame-free breadsticks, Jeffers says. The menu item became available without sesame as of October 2023.
“We’re committed to making the dining experience for every guest, including our guests with food allergies, an exceptional one,” Jeffers says.
Since bakers started changing recipes in light of the FASTER Act, advocacy groups have voiced concerns.
In May 2023, the American Bakers Association (ABA) defended commercial bakers for adding sesame to bread and other baked goods in response to the FASTER ACT. The trade organization cited “consumer safety” in its defense, which noted the challenges in eliminating the small sesame seed from baking equipment.
The FDA says it does not support the practice of intentionally adding sesame to products. The agency is encouraging manufacturers to follow its advice on allergen controls in new draft guidance that the FDA brought forward in September 2023.
But the agency has been criticized for not taking stronger action against companies who are using added sesame as a way around the law. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called out the FDA for not taking a firm hand in deterring the practice.
Meantime, FARE has voiced concern about the added sesame issue since it emerged. The food allergy non-profit also is exploring legislative solutions with the FDA to deter companies from adding sesame to comply with the FASTER ACT.
Olive Garden Leads Way
For now, customers can celebrate a major food chain putting its popular breadsticks back on the menu for customers with a sesame allergy. Olive Garden encourages guests with food allergies to review the online allergen menu to make informed decision when dining, Jeffers notes.
Sung Poblete, CEO of FARE, added her voice, thanking the Olive Garden team “on behalf of the more than 1.6 million Americans allergic to sesame.”
“We applaud Olive Garden’s leadership for valuing the food allergic community by demanding sesame-free bread,” FARE’s Linde says. “And we encourage other restaurant brands to follow Olive Garden’s lead.”