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Is Sesame The New Peanut Allergy? What Parents Need to Know

New law requires food containing sesame to be clearly labeled.

When the 9-month-old daughter of Susan and Dan Forde of West Chester, PA showed interest in the hummus her older sister was enjoying, Susan let her have a first taste. As the skin around little Camryn’s lips reddened, Susan became suspicious that the garlic or lemon contained in the hummus might be irritating. But when the rash turned into hives, Susan recognized it most likely was a food allergy because of her experience with her older daughter’s peanut allergy. She made an appointment with an allergist for testing, and the results came back with a surprising diagnosis: sesame allergy. 


“I never considered that sesame could be an allergen,” says Susan, a teacher and mother of four girls. “Suddenly everything with sesame had to come off the grocery list. I was astounded by how many items we use on a regular basis contain sesame, and what was worse, very few things are labelled to reveal if sesame is in them or not.”


Sesame is the ninth most common food allergy in the U.S. for children and adults and can cause serious reactions similar to peanut, egg, or milk. Yet it is has not been subject to the same food-labeling laws the other eight require – until now. President Biden just signed a law that adds sesame to the list of allergens required to be listed on food labels. 


“Most food allergies are more readily identified, whereas sesame allergies are often discovered accidentally,” says Dr. Manav Segal, board-certified allergist at Chestnut Hill Allergy & Asthma Associates. “That’s because sesame can be disguised in many forms.” 


Foods that may contain sesame seeds, paste or oil include breadcrumbs (which could be used in meatballs, soups, and coatings), granola, chips, crackers, dips such as hummus and tahini, bagels, breadsticks, hamburger buns, and dozens more. 


“I think I was most shocked when I found out that some candy corn, lip gloss, body washes, shampoos and conditioners all contain sesame oil,” says Susan.


For the next few years, the family practiced avoidance. “Camryn’s reaction to sesame became so severe that it scared me every day,” says Susan. “In order to ensure that Camryn is safe, I choose to be the mom that makes or brings all the food for school parties. I have to be the one that says, ‘Show me the snack’ at the party, ask what they are serving, or bring my own food. Even when you think you have all your bases covered, something can slip through. 


“After a simple tortilla chip caused a severe reaction, I conducted more research that helped me discover that sesame is not always listed in ingredients by name. It can be hidden on the label, and then you have to guess if an item is safe for your child, which is terrifying. That’s when my husband and I turned to Dr. Segal, who is one of the first doctors in the region to offer oral immunotherapy.”


Oral immunotherapy (OIT) is a breakthrough medical treatment guided by a board-certified allergist that helps desensitize people to food allergies, particularly peanuts and nuts. The approach retrains the immune system to tolerate the specific allergens. The payoff is freedom of food fear and elimination of anxiety. 


As many as one-third of adults with sesame allergy reported that they did not have a physician diagnosis of their allergy. “The concern is that patients who may have a sesame allergy may not be readily identified by traditional screening questions because sesame is not currently prioritized like the other most common food allergies,” says Dr. Segal. “Clear labeling will make lives easier and help prevent accidental ingestion with severe reactions.”


Dr. Segal continues, “We are treating Camryn with OIT, and she is making excellent progress. Typically, we can start the treatment for a variety of severe food allergies starting around age three through adulthood. With regular visits over a period of 12 – 15 months, patients who faced daily fears of life-threatening reaction to an allergen can reclaim their lifestyles. Sesame allergy is typically lifelong, so in- home maintenance should be continued with periodic check-ups. As with any allergy, there can be side effects, and the most common is mild stomach upset. We have had about an 85% success rate, which mirrors the national success rate.


“I’m passionate about helping both my girls because kids often can’t advocate for themselves,” says Susan. “Both girls are improving steadily with Dr. Segal’s OIT treatment. They are the bravest children I know, facing their fear every single day. I’d go to the end of the earth to make their lives safer, as well as alleviate the anxiety and fear that is associated with their allergies.”


Dr. Manav Segal, of Chestnut Hill Allergy & Asthma Associates, is a leading Philadelphia-area allergist and immunologist who treats asthma and allergies in children and adults and provides breakthrough Oral Immunotherapy (OIT) to treat severe food allergies. Dr. Segal is Board certified by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and the American Board of Internal Medicine, and is Chief of Allergy & Immunology at Chestnut Hill Hospital. http://www.philadelphia-allergy.com/ 

Dr. Segal is an Allergist/Immunologist who sees both adult and pediatric patients. He is board certified by both the American Board of Allergy and Immunology and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Segal is the Chief Allergy & Immunologist at Chestnut Hill Hospital.