New Law Helps Protect People with Sesame Allergies (and more about food allergies)Health Hub
The edible seeds of this plant are common ingredients in all kinds of foods, from baked goods and cereals to chips and crackers to sushi and vegetarian burgers.
We’re talking about the seeds of the sesame plant, which recently joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of major food allergens. In January, a new law requires food companies to label sesame as an allergen on food packages, including dietary supplements.
In observation of National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, Dr. Laura Veras, an allergist with Lee Physician Group, walks us through the implications of the new law. She also offers some tips on managing our allergies, whether food, environmental, or seasonal. Dr. Veras is board-certified in both internal medicine and allergy and immunology.
Why did the FDA put sesame on the list of major allergens?
The tiny sesame seed plays a big role in not just obvious products like hot dog buns but hides as an ingredient added to many foods, such as sauces, dressings, and more.
“More than 32 million Americans live with life-threatening food allergies,” Dr. Veras says. “Also, there are more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. who are allergic to sesame, and cases of sesame allergy are increasing.”
When people who are allergic to sesame are exposed to it, their immune system produces antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies bind to your allergy cells. During exposure to the sesame, these allergy cells trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals into the blood, causing allergic symptoms.
The reaction symptoms, such as a runny nose, rash, and itchy eyes, can be mild. But it can also cause severe presentations like anaphylaxis that can be characterized by trouble breathing, throat tightness, vomiting, diarrhea, hives, facial swelling and even a drop in blood pressure.
“Not all allergic reactions will turn into anaphylaxis,” Dr. Veras says. “The symptoms and severity of allergic reactions to food can differ between individuals, but reactions can also vary in the same person when exposed to the same allergen.”
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Dr. Veras notes these symptoms of an allergic reaction aren’t just specific to sesame, either. A person who is allergic to any of the food can show allergic symptoms.
In 2004, the FDA announced the first eight food allergens – milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Sesame became the ninth food added to the list.
The FDA’s newest entry onto the list of major allergens serves as an important reminder for shoppers always to check labels on food products each time, Dr. Veras says.
“Labels and ingredients can change, even if it's a food you've regularly eaten before without an allergic reaction. I would also caution that you can still find food products for sale that don't list sesame as an allergen on the label,” she notes. “I would encourage you to read the food labels. If the food is dated before Jan. 31, 2023, and you’re concerned if it contains sesame, call the company that makes the food to find out.”
How do I manage my food allergy?
Dr. Veras says the best way to treat a food allergy involves avoiding the food or foods that trigger an allergic reaction. If you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy, here are some steps you can take to manage your condition:
1. Identify the allergen: Work with your allergist to determine the specific food or foods that trigger your allergic reaction.
2. Avoid the allergen: Once you know which food causes your allergy, you should avoid it completely.
3. Read food labels: Always read the ingredient labels of packaged foods. Also, some companies voluntarily include a separate advisory statement, such as “may contain” or "produced in a facility," on their labels if there is a chance that a food allergen could be present. A manufacturer might use the same equipment to make different products.
4. If you’re unsure if a product contains your allergen, contact the food company for more information.
5. Be cautious when dining out: When eating at restaurants or other food establishments, let your server or chef know about your food allergy. Also, ask for recommendations on safe menu items.
6. Carry an epinephrine auto-injector: If you have a food allergy, it's important to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times and know how to use it in case of an emergency.
7. Have a food allergy action plan that details what medications to use and when to use based on your symptoms.
8. Seek medical attention if needed. If you accidentally consume an allergen and experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, swelling, or hives, seek medical attention immediately.
9. Overall, managing a food allergy requires diligence and careful planning to ensure your safety and well-being. Work closely with your allergist to develop the best plan for you.
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