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FDA considers labeling sesame for food allergies

Sesame may be added to the list of foods that must be clearly labeled on food packages as a food allergy by the Food and Drug Administration

By Allen Cone, UPI

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday it is studying whether to add sesame as among foods that must be clearly labeled as an allergen on food packages.

Currently, eight allergens must be declared on packaged food labels -- peanuts, milk, tree nuts, egg, wheat, soy, shellfish and fish -- as part of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. The tiny seed is already on the priority allergen lists in Canada, Europe and Australia.

When the U.S. law went into effect, the eight food groups of more than 160 identified food allergens accounted for 90 percent of serious food allergic reactions occurring in the United States.

"Unfortunately, we're beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the U.S.," Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA's commissioner, said in a statement. "Because sesame is not recognized as a major allergen, right now it's not required to be declared as an allergen on food labels. In fact, it may not always be specifically listed in the ingredient statement."

He said products with "natural flavors" or "spices" listed on their label may contain small amounts of sesame." Also people allergic to sesame might eat food labeled as containing "tahini" without knowing that tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds.

Sensitivity to sesame, a flowering plant that produces edible seeds, can range from mild, such as hives, to severe, such as anaphylaxis, according to the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education.

FARE "https://www.foodallergy.org/common-allergens/sesame" target="_blank"} and the nonprofit {link:Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America have sought to list add sesame to the list.

More than 300,000 Americans live with a sesame allergy, according to a report this year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that surveyed 50,000 U.S. households. That makes it the ninth-most prevalent allergen.

Gottlieb said that, according to a "handful of studies," the prevalence of sesame allergies in the nation may be around 0.1 percent, which is "on par with allergies to soy and fish."

"Fear of not knowing whether a food contains sesame may lead some people to unnecessarily limit their diets to avoid possible exposure," Gottlieb said.

The agency on Monday issued a request for information from epidemiologists, nutritionists, allergy researchers, physicians, the food industry and consumers "so we can learn more about the prevalence and severity of sesame allergies in the U.S., as well as the prevalence of sesame-containing foods sold in this country."

He said this material will help the FDA respond to a citizen's petition to the FDA from medical professionals and consumer advocacy groups "who asked us to require that sesame-based ingredients be listed specifically by name on the ingredient lists of all food labels. We take the concerns of people with sesame allergies seriously."

The FDA plans to expand testing of sesame in products.

Three years ago, scientists in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition developed the xMAP Food Allergen Detection Assay that can detect all major food allergens, with the exception of fish, in just six hours.

"Gaining a better understanding of the state of the science on food allergies and how these allergens impact consumers, particularly sesame allergies, is an important and necessary first step toward our consideration of new policies that could require labeling for sesame allergens," Gottlieb said.

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