Allergic to Sesame Seeds? A New Food Labeling Law Is Going to Make Things Worse

Not all sesame seed ingredients are this obvious.
Not all sesame seed ingredients are this obvious. / Ivan Ivanisevic/500px via Getty Images

If you’re one of the millions of Americans with one or more food allergies, you’re probably used to scanning product packages for bold font indicating whether they have ingredients like shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, or soy. But a new U.S. mandate forcing manufacturers to list another common allergen, sesame, is having a paradoxical effect: It looks like sesame will now be in more food than ever before.

According to the Associated Press, a law going into effect January 1, 2023, requires that food products list sesame as an allergen. But because it’s difficult to separate sesame-containing foods like bread from their non-sesame counterparts during preparation, manufacturers are now deliberately adding the ingredient (in the form of seeds, flour, or oil) to foods. It’s easier and cheaper to do so and declare the allergen rather than to create new supply processes to keep the products separate.

And those voluntary labels warning that some foods “may contain” an ingredient because they’re “produced in a facility” with known allergens? They are no longer enough. The new law requires products to state that an allergen is an ingredient, or to state that it unequivocally does not contain it. The cross-contamination problem falls into a gray area that some restaurant chains are solving in an unexpected way.

Olive Garden, for example, will now be adding some sesame flour to its breadsticks and labeling them as containing sesame rather than label them sesame-free and risk a consumer having an adverse reaction due to shared preparation areas. Chains like Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A have a similar strategy. Processed products like sliced bread, cookies, dressings, and others are expected to do the same.

The result is that consumers may continue buying a product out of habit without realizing that the manufacturing or ingredient list has changed; a previously “safe” food to consume may no longer be reliable.

Since 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enforced labeling for the eight major food allergens: shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, wheat, and soybeans. Sesame is the ninth major allergen and affects an estimated 1.6 million people in the U.S.

For those suffering from sesame reactions, it would be wise to examine food labels carefully, check restaurant websites for information, or ask servers about foods that may now contain the allergen.

[h/t Associated Press]