Sesame has joined the list of major food allergens that are now required to be declared on food labels, according the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The new rule went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. It requires that all foods made and sold in the U.S. must be labeled if they contain sesame, which is now the nation’s ninth major allergen.
The other eight allergens, which were established through a federal law passed by Congress in 2004, are: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
Advocates for families coping with allergies lobbied for years to have sesame added to the list of major allergens.
Get New England news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NECN newsletters.
More than 1.6 million people in the U.S. are allergic to sesame, some so severe that they need injections of epinephrine, a drug used to treat life-threatening reactions. Cases of sesame allergy have been rising in recent years along with a growing number of foods that contain the ingredient, according to Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research at Northwestern University.
“Sesame is in so many things that people don’t really understand,” said Gupta. “In families that do have a sesame allergy, it is truly challenging."
Sesame can be found in obvious places, like sesame seeds on hamburger buns. But it is also an ingredient in many foods like protein bars and ice cream, added to sauces, dips and salad dressings and hidden in spices and flavorings.
Under the new law, companies must now explicitly label sesame as an ingredient or separately note that a product contains sesame. In the U.S., ingredients are listed on product packaging in order of amount. Sesame labeling has been required for years in other places, including Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If the ingredients don’t include sesame, companies must take steps to prevent the foods from coming in contact with any sesame, known as cross-contamination.
Food industry experts said the new requirements aren’t simple or practical.
“It’s as if we’ve suddenly asked bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand,” said Nathan Mirdamadi, a consultant with Commercial Food Sanitation, which advises the industry about food safety.
Some companies include statements on labels that say a food “may contain” a certain product or that the food is “produced in a facility” that also uses certain allergens. However, such statements are voluntary and not required, according to the FDA, and they do not absolve the company of requirements to prevent cross-contamination.
The new law is also having some unintended consequences. Food industry experts said the requirements are so stringent that many manufacturers, especially bakers, find it simpler and less expensive to just add sesame to a product — and to label it — than to try to keep it away from other foods or equipment with sesame.
Officials at Olive Garden told the Associated Press that starting in December, ahead of the law taking effect, the chain began adding “a minimal amount of sesame flour” to the company’s famous breadsticks “due to the potential for cross-contamination at the bakery.”
Chick-fil-A has also changed its white bun and multigrain brioche buns ingredients to include sesame, while Wendy’s said the company has added sesame to its French toast sticks and buns.
Although such actions don’t violate the law, the FDA “does not support” them, the agency said in a statement. Dr. Gupta called the the move to add sesame to products “so disappointing.”
“It would make it more difficult for sesame allergic customers to find foods that are safe for them to consume,” the FDA statement said.