Sesame Allergy: The 9th Most Common Food Allergy

A sesame seed or sesame oil allergy is fairly common, but it's not recognized as one of the major allergens. Therefore, it’s important to know the ingredients that contain sesame to look out for.

sesame allergy a close up of sesame seeds

Sesame seeds can be used as a garnish, and sesame oil used for flavor. But did you know sesame can be hiding in processed meats, dressings, and other products under different names?

© Amarita | Getty Images

Food allergies are quite prevalent and affect more than 32 million people in the U.S. As a result, it’s now common practice to take precautions with common food allergens, such as wheat, peanuts, or tree nuts, to avoid a potential allergic reaction. But what about less familiar food allergens, like sesame?

Sesame is a globally popular ingredient, used in baking, oils, salads, even sushi, is more common than one might think. Sesame is the ninth most common food allergy, affecting more than 1.5 million children and adults in the U.S. But, sesame can be difficult to identify, as it is often a hidden ingredient in foods as well as some non-food products, like cosmetics. Because it is not recognized as one of the top eight food allergens in this country, sesame has not been required to be clearly labeled as a food ingredient.

Fortunately, a new law will recognize sesame as a major allergen and require it to be labeled on all packaged foods in the U.S. beginning January 1, 2023. Here’s what affected people need to know right now.

Sesame Allergy Symptoms

Sesame allergy is an allergy to the sesame plant, including sesame seeds, and products made from the plant, like sesame oil and sesame flour. As with other food allergies, a reaction is triggered when the immune system treats the proteins in a particular food (sesame, in this case) as harmful and defends against them by making antibodies to attack them. These antibodies cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction, typically within seconds to a few hours after the sesame-containing food is eaten.

As with other food allergies, symptoms may vary from mild to severe, including life-threatening anaphylaxis. According to the Food and Drug Administration, symptoms can include:

  • Hives
  • Flushed skin or rash
  • Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
  • Face, tongue, or lip swelling
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
  • Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

How to Avoid Sesame

Sesame can be a challenge to avoid because it isn’t always as obvious as sesame seeds on the top of a hamburger bun or pressed into the rice on a sushi roll. Sesame seeds are a very common addition to crackers, breads, and baked goods, both sweet and savory, but may also be mixed into a food and not visible. Other products made from sesame are less obvious, such as sesame flour, sesame salt, sesame paste, and sesame oil. Common foods like these may contain a form of sesame:

  • Breads and baked goods
  • Cereals, granola, muesli
  • Chips, crackers, pretzels
  • Hummus and baba ghanoush
  • Asian cuisine
  • Dressings, gravies, sauces
  • Energy and protein bars
  • Noodles
  • Sausages, veggie burgers, processed meats
  • Spices, seasonings, and flavorings

A list of foods that potentially contain sesame would be exhaustive, so be sure to scan all food labels, even items one might least suspect. Look closely for sesame ingredients listed by uncommon names as well:

  • Benne, benne seed, benniseed
  • Gingelly, gingelly oil
  • Gomasio (sesame salt)
  • Halvah
  • Sesamol
  • Sesamum indicum
  • Sesemolina, semolina
  • Sim sim
  • Tahini, Tahina, Tehina
  • Til

In addition to food, people affected by sesame allergy should be vigilant about checking labels for Sesamum indicum, the scientific name for sesame, on certain non-food items: cosmetics (lotions, creams, soaps, body oils, hair care products, perfumes), medications, supplements, and pet food.

While there is no cure for sesame allergy, identifying the ingredient in foods will be much easier for those affected once the new labeling law goes into effect in 2023.

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Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD, has been the Executive Editor of Environmental Nutrition since 2018. As a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Kristen is experienced in the areas of weight management, health promotion, and … Read More

View all posts by Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

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