By: Sara Tyler, Food Safety & Quality Assurance Manager
Allergens, and people with allergies, are all around us. Even if you, personally, do not have allergies — you likely know someone who has at least one food allergy. But, as common as they may seem, do you actually know what these allergens and allergies are all about?
In this article, you will find:
Let’s start with a definition:
“An allergen is a type of antigen (a toxin or other foreign substance) that produces an abnormally vigorous immune response in which the immune system fights off a perceived threat that would otherwise be harmless to the body. We call such reactions allergies.”
And… just how common are food allergens?
1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children have a food allergy, totaling approximately 32 million Americans. These food allergies have a profound effect on the individuals that have them as they can be equally life altering and potentially life threatening. In fact, according to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education, a non-profit organization that aims to improve awareness around allergy healthcare options and treatment through education and advocacy initiatives), “every 3 minutes a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.” Additionally, “each year in the U.S., 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food.”
What is being done to address the situation?
Because food allergies are a serious issue for so many, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) implemented the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA).
This law identified eight foods as “major food allergens”: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean. The legislation also required food manufacturers to clearly label any and all allergens in their products so that the individual with a food allergy may avoid foods with those allergens.
The foods called out as allergens within FALCPA account for 90 percent of all food allergies. However, food allergies have been on the rise since this law was passed in 2004. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergies in children has increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Due to this increase in food allergies, it has now become increasingly important to look at the food allergies that affect the remaining 10 percent.
This brings us to Sesame.
Sesame is a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum. It is widely naturalized in tropical regions around the world and is cultivated for its edible seeds, which grow in pods. Sesame seeds are found in a multitude of foods and in various forms. The seeds themselves are often used to top baked goods like bagels and breads. Sesame seeds can also be processed into tahini (a Middle Eastern condiment made from toasted ground hulled sesame), tempeh (a fermented soybean-based protein alternative that traditionally included sesame seeds), or into a nutty flavored oil.
Unfortunately some individuals are allergic to sesame and may have reactions (even from the oil) ranging from hives to anaphylaxis. For those not familiar, The Mayo Clinic defines anaphylaxis as “a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to something you’re allergic to”. Sesame allergies are not new, but according to FARE, “Allergists consider sesame allergy to be an emerging concern.” Data from a 2019 study, conducted by the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, expands on this claim. The study uncovered that there are a vast amount of sesame allergy sufferers — approximately 1.1 million in the United States. The study also illustrated that, because allergic reactions to sesame can be severe, they may result in, “substantial use of health care services among US children and adults”.
With the number of people affected, and the negative burden allergic reactions placed on our (presently inundated) healthcare infrastructure, it is not surprising that this condition has been on the mind of food safety personnel and federal legislators alike. Currently, there is not a requirement to identify sesame, or ingredients containing sesame, on food packaging or labels. This leaves sesame allergy sufferers unaware whether the processed food they are consuming will cause a reaction. Sesame allergy sufferers are also at a unique disadvantage because sesame may be present in a wide variety of flavors, spices, or oils.
Will sesame make the major food allergen list?
The good news is that the FASTER Act of 2021 (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act of 2021), signed into law on April 23, 2021, expanded the definition of “major food allergen” for purposes of food-labeling requirements to specifically include sesame.
Sesame has now been added to the formerly “Big 8” list of food allergens that must be labeled. Beginning January 1, 2023, sesame will join the aforementioned food allergens currently recognized in the United States. To those who suffer from a sesame allergy, and those around them, this is a huge relief. This legislation will improve the quality of life and the health of sesame allergy sufferers — giving them the ability to know what foods sesame is present in so they may avoid those items.
At Leahy-IFP, we are creating a more fruitful life for everyone — including those with allergies. As a leading fruit and beverage manufacturer and innovator, we know that the role we fulfill is a vital one — and that’s why safety is always our top concern.
We believe the more information we share on the challenges we collectively face, the better the food and beverage, medical, and regulatory communities can work together to protect the public’s safety. So remember, it is tremendously important for all of us to be aware of the “big 9” food allergens, be mindful of those with food allergies, and be vigilant in our monitoring of rising allergies. This way, we can positively affect and help to protect the lives of food allergy sufferers and potentially reduce the public health burden of accidental allergic reactions.
Let’s keep creating a more fruitful life for everyone.