Sesame Seeds are extremely potent allergens, capable of causing severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) in certain people. Sesame is becoming increasingly common in today’s diets and is used extensively in everyday foods, especially on bread and other bakery products. Products that are not intended to contain sesame may still have traces of the allergen due to manufacturing or marketing practices.
Hummus, Tahini and Halvah are three very popular sesame products, which are sometimes added to other foods. Other common sources of sesame include: bakery products, biscuits, crackers, breadsticks, rice cakes, bagels, pies and muesli.
Some pre-packed delicatessen and processed foods also contain sesame, for example: noodles, dips, soups, sausages, samosas, processed meats, veggie burgers, chutneys, salad dressings, mixed spices, spreads and confection bars. It is also an unexpected ingredient in some herbals drinks, for example Aqua Libra, and it’s worth remembering that unwrapped bread products and patisserie counters may be contaminated with sesame seeds too.
Despite this, many people with mild allergy to sesame are able to eat buns and breads coated with sesame seeds. This is because the protein causing the allergy is only released if the seed is broken and squashed, such as with the production of hummus and sesame snacks. If the seeds on buns are eaten whole, the protein isn’t exposed and doesn’t cause a reaction.
Unlike other oils such as peanut oil, which is usually refined to the point where there is little or no allergenic protein left, sesame oil is made by cold-pressing sesame seeds and isn’t refined, so retains most of its allergenicity. It is often used ‘unrefined’ in food products (it’s extremely popular in Oriental cuisine), and can therefore cause reactions to those allergic to sesame seed.
Sesame oil is also used in pharmaceutical products and cosmetics and, in fact, some allergy tested cosmetics contain sesame. Although refined sesame oil is used in these products, hypersensitive reactions (urticaria) have still been reported.
However, the highest risk comes from restaurant food and while peanut allergy is well recognised in the catering sector, catering staff often don’t appreciate that sesame allergy is just as serious.
Oriental cooking and vegetarian foods are particularly hazardous and many restaurants today use bought-in meals, which may not carry full ingredient lists. Another risk lies in the re-use of cooking oils, which is a common practice in the catering sector. Always speak with the person responsible for preparing the food to make absolutely sure you know what you’re eating.
Sesame allergy has received scant attention in the UK and education of sesame patients and professionals caring for them is still inadequate. Despite this, reports of anaphylaxis induced by sesame are increasing, so it’s essential to view any reaction to sesame as potentially serious. Those affected should seek medical advice and, in addition to carrying the prescribed medication, those at risk of anaphylaxis should consider wearing an Emergency Alert necklace or bracelet to alert doctors and other bystanders to their problem.