Sesame allergies are more common than previously thought, based on a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open. In fact, it’s the ninth most common allergy in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI).
The August 2019 study shows that an estimated 1.5 million children and adults in the U.S. may have a sesame allergy — that’s nearly as common as soy and pistachio allergies, according to the AAAAI.
Many experience “severe reactions” to the allergen, according to the researchers. “The signs of a sesame allergy are the same as for allergic reactions to other foods,” Jacqueline A. Pongracic, MD, division head of allergy/immunology at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The manifestations may involve the GI tract (abdominal discomfort/cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea), skin (itchy rash, hives, swelling), respiratory tract (cough, throat tightness, difficulty breathing, wheezing) and neurologic and cardiovascular systems (drop in blood pressure, pallor, dizziness, weakness and loss of consciousness).”
In some cases, it can cause anaphylaxis — a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. People with a sesame allergy are also more likely to have an additional food allergy, with peanut allergy being the most common one, according to the study.
It can be hard to avoid exposure to the allergen. That’s partly because the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, only requires manufacturers to list the top eight food allergens — milk, eggs, fish (bass, flounder, cod), crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans — on most food labels. Sesame is currently not listed on labels as a major food allergen.
As the study authors point out: “The decision to not include sesame in labeling laws was made when the aforementioned 8 allergens were believed to be responsible for 90 percent of food allergies.”
Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand already have sesame labeling requirements. The researchers of the new study hope the results prompt the FDA to make widespread labeling changes in the U.S., which they have been considering since October 2018. “It's a simple measure to install and it could protect lives," Moshe Ben-Shoshan, an associate professor of pediatrics at Montreal Children's Hospital in Canada, told CNN.
In the meantime, Illinois governor JB Pritzker took action for his state on July 26 by signing into law a mandate that requires packaged food labels to list whether sesame is an ingredient.
The other reason it’s not easy to avoid sesame: It can be found in a variety of food products (in seed, oil and paste form, such as tahini), according to the AAAAI. Sesame — sometimes listed as Sesamum indicum on the label — can also be present in some cosmetics, medications, and supplements.
“It is important for consumers to be aware of sesame allergies,” the senior author of the study, Ruchi S. Gupta, MD, told the AAAI. “With evidence mounting that sesame allergy is on the rise, and can result in severe reactions, we are hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration will take these data into account as they determine whether or not to add sesame to their list of major food allergens.”
So what should you do if you suspect you or a loved one has a sesame allergy? Pongracic recommends seeing an allergist to confirm the diagnosis. “An allergist will first take a detailed history, then determine whether skin testing or blood testing should be performed to see if allergen antibody to sesame is present,” she explains. “After confirming the diagnosis, an allergist will educate the patient about potential high risk situations and how to avoid sesame. They will also provide guidance about how to prevent future reactions and how to manage a reaction should it occur. They will prescribe medications to carry at all times.”
There is no cure for food allergies. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid possible exposure. FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) provides a list of some of the foods that typically contain sesame, and recommends carrying an epinephrine auto-injector — the first-line of treatment for anaphylaxis — with you at all times if you’re allergic.
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