Quick! Name one of the major food allergens.
Did you say peanut? Maybe egg or fish?
In the US, about 32 million people have food allergies. Surprisingly, however, only a small group of foods cause the vast majority of serious food allergy reactions. The FDA calls them the “Big 8” food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, crustacean shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, and soybeans. And last year, they added a ninth food to the list: sesame.
Why the change?
Out of the roughly 170 different foods that cause allergic reactions, federal laws focus only on the major food allergens. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 identified the Big 8 as the most common. This act required manufacturers of food, food ingredients, and and dietary supplements to include any Big 8 allergens that are in their products on the package labeling, and their food sources. Then last year Congress signed the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment and Research (FASTER) Act). It added sesame to the major food allergen list, meaning sesame is now part of food allergen labeling law. (Soon you’ll begin seeing it on food packaging along with the other eight.) The FASTER Act calls for additional study and information collection, which will better our understanding of:
- exposure data
- specific allergen prevalence
- the economic impact of food allergies in our country
The act also recommends the development of a streamlined process and framework. This would allow for timely and evidence-based changes to the definition of a “major food allergen.” As a whole, the FASTER Act aims to benefit consumers through a wide range of scientific, economic, and patient-centered measures.
Do all foods have food allergen labeling?
Not all foods are subject to allergen labeling law. The FDA is in charge of labeling regulations for foods, food ingredients, and dietary supplements in the United States. Products that don’t fall into those categories are not part of food allergen labeling law. These include:
- meats, poultry, and eggs (which fall under US Department of Agriculture oversight)
- foods not pre-packaged (e.g., in bulk bins or unpackaged in the bakery section)
- unpackaged food items sold at retail or foodservice establishments
How do manufacturers list allergens on food packages?
The ingredient list must include all food ingredients present in a packaged food. In some instances, that ingredient listing is enough to identify an allergen. For example, take a packaged pastry that contains eggs. As long as “egg” is on the ingredient list, it’s compliant with the allergen labeling requirement. However, in some cases a food ingredient name does not specify a food allergen. For example, when the word “spices” appears in an ingredient list, additional labeling regulations apply. This measure lets people know exactly which food allergen is part of that ingredient.
Here’s how manufacturers label food allergens, using sesame as the example:
Let’s say a food contains tahini (a sesame-based food) as an ingredient in the ingredient list. You’ll find sesame listed in one of two ways:
- in parentheses following the name of the food source, in this case “tahini (sesame)”
- as part of a “contains” statement—“Contains sesame” listed either after or next to the regular ingredient list
Is sesame labeling already on food packages?
Changing packaging takes time, and the labeling regulation for sesame just went into effect on January 1, 2023. So it’s likely you won’t see many food packages with the new labeling right away. Also, labels on products that entered the economy before January 1 will stay as they are. This includes food packages that are already in the interstate commerce process or on the store shelves. Recognizing the labeling gap caused by the transition, the FDA suggests that consumers go straight to the source. If you cannot determine if sesame is present in a particular product, check with the food manufacturers directly.
Which foods frequently contain sesame?
Sesame seeds and sesame-based ingredients are common in a variety of cuisines worldwide. Chances are, if you’re allergic to sesame, you probably have a pretty good idea what foods might include it. But maybe you’re cooking for someone with a sesame allergy and aren’t allergic yourself. Many foods include this popular seed and ingredients made from it—sesame can show up in some unusual places! The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization, provides lots of consumer-friendly information and materials. Check out the list of sesame-based foods and food ingredients on their website.
Here in the US, we commonly find sesame seeds in:
- baked goods—e.g., buns and breadsticks
- nut mixtures and snack foods—e.g., chips and crackers
- granola-based cereals
- dipping sauces such as hummus
- sushi or seared tuna
It’s important to realize that sesame may be in a food even if you can’t actually see the seeds. This is why accurate and thorough food labeling is so important!
Sesame-savvy shopping tips
- Until the sesame labeling is in full swing on packaged products, always check food ingredient lists. This is true even if you’ve purchased a food many times and have previously known it to be sesame-free. Formulations change, and it’s better to be sure.
- Check ingredient lists online before heading to the store. One easy and efficient way to do that is by using the Guiding Stars Food Finder. You can search food label information by food name or barcode. Or simply select a food category, e.g., cereals, and filter the results by the specific allergen(s) you wish to avoid. The Food Finder will also tell you how many Guiding Stars that food has—bonus information!
- Shopping online for store pickup or delivery? See if your store or service allows you to filter your product searches for specific allergens.