Sesame Seed Allergy: A Growing Problem?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

Doctors have found a steady and significant increase in the number of reports of allergic reactions to sesame over the past decades. While the European Commission (EC) and Canada have added sesame to the list of major food allergens for food labeling purposes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not include sesame in its list of allergy-causing foods for labeling purposes.

Sesame seeds and sesame seed oil are used in the food industry (primarily in the baking industry) as well as in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

Doctors monitored published reports of allergic reactions to sesame products from 1950 (the first documented case of an allergic reaction to sesame) to the present. They noted that a study of Australian children showed that allergic reactions to sesame ranked fourth behind reactions to egg, milk, and peanuts, and sesame was the third most common allergy-inducing food in Israeli children. Sesame products in cosmetics and ointments have been reported to cause allergic dermatitis, an inflammatory condition of the skin. Workers in the baking industry have also developed allergic reactions (including asthma) to sesame products. Fatal anaphylactic reactions (severe reactions that include swelling of the airways and difficulty breathing) have also occurred with sesame.

Food allergies are not uncommon in the general population, with up to four per cent of U.S. adults affected by this condition. Food allergies are slightly more common in infants and toddlers than in adults. It is possible to develop a food allergy at any time in life, even to foods that have been previously eaten without problems. Although people can become allergic to almost any food product, common food triggers for allergic reactions in Americans include milk, eggs, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, and shellfish. Common food allergy symptoms include:

Symptoms of an allergic reaction may vary from a mild, itchy rash to a severe, potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction.

Some specific instances of sesame allergy have resulted in skin rashes and inflammation after baking with sesame seeds and skin rashes from cosmetics that contain sesame oil.

While the number of reports of sesame allergy has steadily increased, it remains unclear whether this represents an actual increase in the number of reactions or an increased rate of detection and reporting of these allergic reactions. More research is needed before the prevalence of sesame allergy can be definitively assessed. If you believe you have an allergy to sesame or other foods, your doctor can refer you to a specialist who can perform tests to determine whether you have an allergy to a specific food or foods.

Reference: Gangur V, et al. Sesame allergy: a growing food allergy of global proportions? Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2005;95:4-11.