By Madeleine Kates
Everyone has found a hitchhiking sesame seed on their plain or blueberry bagel at one time or another. Sesame seeds are the ninth most common type of food allergy in the United States. While rarely mentioned on labels or food menus, these tasteless, unassuming seeds are found in foods and products from a variety of different cultures. Sesame is not only found in Asian or Middle Eastern dishes, but also on breads, snack foods, cookies, and candies. In our kitchen, sesame has made an accidental appearance on numerous occasions, and in the most unexpected places.
While the online resource foodallergy.org reports that an allergy to sesame has increased globally over the past two decades, guidelines do not currently require that it appear as a labeled food allergen. Fortunately, this will change as of January 1, 2023, when new legislation requires that food packaging clearly list if a product contains sesame, or if sesame was present during the food production process. This is important because when sesame is not specified as a potential allergen, it may give the consumer the impression that it is not contained in the product. To compound the problem, sesame can also be found under a variety of names including tahini or halvah. When someone with an allergy is not able to easily avoid their allergen, instances of severe reaction or life-threatening anaphylaxis can occur.
Seasonings, garnishes, or toppings are other places sesame can hide, leading to more mealtime confusion. When mentioning sesame allergy at a restaurant, the first thought is often of Asian cuisine or sesame oils, but it may be sitting in plain sight on a hamburger bun. Sesame is used in both sweet and savory dishes and confections, making it more difficult to avoid. And, when made into a paste under the name tahini, most commonly found in hummus or salad dressings, sesame no longer looks like a seed at all.
Cross-contamination is something to watch out for, as the seed’s small size and ability to stick to other food items means that a sesame seed can easily latch onto non-sesame items if using the same preparation or storage area. Sesame also hides in non-food items, as an oil in cosmetics and personal care products.
For those having difficulty searching for allergy-friendly products, great brands to try are Gerbs Allergy Friendly Foods (free of the top 14 food allergens) and Libre Naturals (free of the top 11 allergens). Both companies ship directly from their dedicated facilities, and were founded out of necessity to fill the need for allergy-friendly snacks for their own families.
Madeleine Kates is a Senior at Niagara University studying Life Sciences, Psychology, and Environmental Science.