Food legislation recognizes sesame as major allergen, results in unintended consequences

Rylie Lillibridge, Senior News Reporter

At the onset of 2023, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act officially recognized sesame as the ninth most common food allergen in the United States. Currently, around 0.5% of the U.S. population is allergic to sesame, according to Pooja Varshney, medical director of the food allergy program at Dell Children’s Medical Center.

However, Varshney said the bill has had some unintended consequences in the months since its passing. Some restaurants have begun adding sesame to menu items in order to bypass the necessary practices and precautions to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen, she said.

“This has primarily occurred for … baked goods in which sesame flour is added to an existing recipe to avoid having to comply with ensuring that there’s no cross-contamination with the allergen,” said Varshney, an associate professor of pediatrics at Dell Medical School. “Additionally, this has affected some food suppliers that supply some common restaurant chains.”

The FASTER Act requires sesame to be clearly labeled as an allergen on packaged foods containing it. 

“Often, sesame would be a hidden ingredient and a food listed as a natural flavoring or a spice, and that would result in allergic reactions,” Varshney said. “Other countries have required sesame to be clearly labeled for years, so it really was long overdue for the FASTER Act to require U.S. companies to also label sesame.”

Allergic reactions can range in severity, Varshney said, with symptoms ranging from itchiness and hives to abdominal symptoms and difficulty breathing.  

“The key thing with a food allergy is that the symptoms show up soon after eating, so typically within 15 to 20 minutes of ingestion of the food allergen,” Varshney said. 

Restaurants that have added sesame to menu items include Chick-Fil-A, which has two locations on UT’s campus. According to Chick-Fil-A, a recipe change has resulted in sesame being used in white buns and multigrain brioche buns.

Though University Housing and Dining has taken action to implement the FASTER Act requirements in dining halls and UHD-owned restaurants, they are unable to influence the menu of franchised restaurants on campus, said Keith Morrison, director of culinary for UHD. 

“They are their own entity, so they’re going to make whatever rules and whatever recipes they want,” Morrison said. 

Varshney said food allergy advocates as well as the FDA are working with food manufacturers to address the unintended consequences of the act. In the meantime, she said people with sesame allergens should regularly check food labels to make sure the ingredient has not been recently added to foods that were previously safe to eat.

“We really want folks to be able to navigate the world empowered with knowledge about their food allergies,” Varshney said. “Our goal is to really cultivate healthy respect for a food allergy, help people know how to navigate the world with their food allergy and improve quality of life.”