The new naming law has an unintended effect: Sesame is in more foods

A new federal law requiring sesame to be listed as an allergen on food labels has an unintended consequence — increasing the number of products that contain the ingredient.

Food industry experts said the requirements are so stringent that many manufacturers, especially bakers, find it easier and more affordable to add sesame to a product — and label it — than to try to keep it out of other foods or equipment that contains sesame.

As a result, many companies—including national restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Wendy’s, and Chick-fil-A and the bread makers that stock grocery shelves and serve schools—are adding sesame to products where there wasn’t before. While the practice is legal, consumers and advocates say it violates the spirit of the law, which aims to make foods safer for people with allergies.

“It was really exciting as a policy advocate and mom to have these stickers,” said Naomi Seiler, a counselor with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, whose 9-year-old daughter, Zoe, is allergic to sesame. Instead, companies intentionally add allergens to food.

The new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, requires all foods manufactured and sold in the United States to be labeled if they contain sesame, which is now the ninth major allergen in the country. Sesame can be found in obvious places, like sesame seeds on hamburger buns. But it’s also an ingredient in many foods from protein bars to ice cream, added to sauces and salad dips and hidden in spices and flavorings.

Advocates for families with allergies have been lobbying for years to add sesame to the list of major allergens. Congress in 2004 established labeling requirements for eight: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

More than 1.6 million people in the United States have a sesame allergy, some so severe that they require injections of epinephrine, a medication used to treat life-threatening reactions. Cases of sesame allergy have been on the rise in recent years along with an increasing number of foods containing this ingredient, said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Northwestern University.

“Sesame is in so many things that people don’t really understand,” said Gupta, who called the move to add sesame to products “very disappointing.”

“In families who are allergic to sesame, this is a real challenge,” she said.

Under the new law, Mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, companies must now explicitly label sesame as an ingredient or separate note that the product contains sesame. In the United States, ingredients are listed on product packaging in order of quantity. Sesame stickers have been in demand for years elsewhere, including Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

If ingredients do not contain sesame, companies must take steps to prevent foods from coming into contact with any sesame, otherwise known as cross-contamination.

Food industry experts said the new requirements are not simple or practical.

“It’s as if we were suddenly asking bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand,” said Nathan Myrdamadi, a consultant with Commercial Food Sanitation, which advises the sector on food safety.

Some companies include statements on labels that the food “may contain” a particular product or that the food is “produced in a facility” that also uses certain allergens. However, such statements are voluntary and not required, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and do not exempt the company from cross-contamination prevention requirements.

Instead, some companies have taken a different approach. Starting this week, officials at Olive Garden said the chain is adding “a minimal amount of sesame flour” to the company’s popular breadsticks “due to the potential for cross-contamination in the bakery.”

Chick-fil-A changed its white bread bun and multigrain brioche bun to include sesame, while Wendy’s said the company added sesame to its French toast.

U.S. Bakeries, which operates Franz family bakeries in California and the Northwest, notified customers in March that they would add a small amount of sesame flour to all hamburger and hot dog buns, rolls, and rolls to “mitigate the risk of any adverse reactions to sesame products.”

In a statement, the agency said that although such actions do not violate the law, the FDA “does not support them.”

“It will make it more difficult for customers with a sesame allergy to find foods that are safe for them to consume,” the statement said.

Some large companies previously added other allergens to products and updated their labels. In 2016, Kellogg’s added traces of peanut flour to some of its cookies and crackers, sparking protests.

This is frustrating and frightening for parents like Kristi Fitzgerald of Crookston, Minnesota. Last spring I learned that Pan-O-Gold Baking Co. , which supplies bread to schools, health centers and grocery stores across the Midwest, has been adding small amounts of sesame to its products, including those served at her daughter’s school. Meanwhile, six-year-old Audrey has outgrown her allergy to sesame.

Bob Hoebner, Pan-O-Gold’s director of food safety/quality assurance, told Fitzgerald in a series of emails that the company had to add sesame to the product and label.

“The unfortunate fact is that our equipment and bakeries are not prepared for the allergenic cleanings that would be required to prevent sesame cross-contamination and were not an option for us,” Huebner wrote in an email to Fitzgerald. Huebner responded to an email from the AP but did not respond to questions about the company’s practices.

Fitzgerald started an online petition protesting the move to add sesame.

“At some point, someone is going to feed sesame to a child who has an allergy,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes me think the laws need to change to show that this is an unacceptable practice.”


The Associated Press Health and Science section receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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