Sesame seeds seem like innocuous embellishments on bagels or sushi, but sesame may be the 9th most common cause of food allergies, a new study suggests.
About 90 percent of food allergies have been thought to be caused by 8 foods or food groups: peanut, milk, shellfish, tree nuts, egg, soy, fin fish, and wheat. These are the foods that laws currently require to be disclosed as allergens on food labels.
But until this research, it wasn’t clear exactly how prevalent allergies to sesame are, and this study suggests more than a million people in the U.S. have this allergy. That’s still fewer than have peanut allergies, but it’s significant.
“Allergies in general, and food allergies are increasing,” says Michael Pistiner, M.D., director of food allergy advocacy, education, and prevention, Food Allergy Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. At the same time, “sesame has become more common in homes in the U.S. in the form of hummus and garnishes.”
Sesame is less likely to give you gastrointestinal symptoms of allergies, like vomiting, but more likely to give you hives than the other common allergens do. Sesame can also cause life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Foods containing sesame aren’t always obvious
The trouble with sesame right now is that you don’t always know what it’s in, although there are reports that the FDA is looking into changing that. “Some people may have small quantities without an issue,” says Dr. Pistiner. So foods where sesame is used as a garnish or flavoring (think everything bagel seasoning), may not be trouble. But other foods can carry huge amounts of this allergen. “Tahini can have hundreds of sesame seeds in a single tablespoon,” he says. And tahini—basically sesame paste—is a key ingredient in now-ubiquitous hummus. Sesame can also go by the name benne (also benni, benny), so look for those on the label if you’re sensitive. But that’s not foolproof: If sesame is considered by the manufacturer to be a “spice” or “natural flavor,” it won’t be listed on the label separately.
So do you need to be tested for sesame allergy?
“If you can eat a food in full servings and don’t have symptoms, then you’re not allergic,” says Dr. Pistiner. If you think you are allergic, don’t fall for at-home food allergy tests promising to tell you. “Currently, there is no at-home test that is supported for use in testing IGE-mediated allergies [like sesame],” he says.
“If you’re unsure and think you may have had a reaction, seek a healthcare provider who can help you see if this could be an allergic reaction and how you could safely get that food back into your diet,” Dr. Pistiner says.
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