Sesame seeds are used whole or ground for their nutty flavor in various cuisines and dishes. The FDA is suggesting manufacturers voluntarily include it on labels where appropriate.
CNN  — 

The US Food and Drug Administration is recommending food manufacturers voluntarily list sesame as an ingredient on food labels.

The guidance is not a requirement and is intended to help people who are allergic to sesame identify foods that may contain the seed, the agency said.

“Many Americans are allergic or sensitive to sesame, and they need the ability to quickly identify products that might contain sesame,” Susan Mayne, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement.

Under current FDA regulations, sesame must be declared on a label if whole seeds are used as an ingredient, but labeling is not required when it’s used as a flavor or in a spice blend. It’s also not required for a product such as tahini, which is made from ground sesame seed paste. Some consumers are not aware that tahini is made from sesame seeds, the agency said.

“In these instances, sesame may not be declared by name in the ingredient list on a product’s label. We are encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily list sesame as an ingredient whenever a product has been made with sesame,” Mayne said.

Under federal law, eight products are listed as “major food allergens” and must be included on food labels. They are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

The FDA has been reviewing whether to include sesame seeds on the list for several years, but for now is only suggesting manufacturers voluntarily include it on labels where appropriate.

In light of the issued guidance, some food allergist experts have contended that a voluntary recommendation isn’t good enough.

“On behalf of the 32 million Americans who suffer from life-threatening food allergies, and the 1.5 million Americans allergic to sesame, FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) is disappointed in the FDA’s proposed guidance to industry,” said Lisa Gable, the organization’s chief executive officer, in a statement.

“While the guidance is a step in the right direction, sesame needs to be recognized as the ninth top allergen and it must be labeled.”

The conviction that Americans “deserve to know what is in the food they eat and buy” is why FARE has been working to pass the FASTER (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education & Research) Act, the organization said in a post on Twitter.

Intended to improve the safety of people with food allergies and expand research for new treatments, the bill, if passed, would update allergen labeling laws to include sesame.

The bill would also require the US government to analyze “the most promising research opportunities to help scientists develop more effective treatments and, ultimately, a cure for food allergies,” FARE’s website says. The bill has been introduced in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.

The FDA guidance is “totally bogus because sesame is much more of a problem,” said Dr. Robert Eitches, an allergist and immunologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Voluntary is a door to make something not necessary to do.”

Staying safe and aware

As plant-based and vegan foods become more popular, Eitches said, the wide use of nuts and seeds is an issue that will come up more often. While sesame seeds on a hamburger bun are obvious, manipulated sesame seeds in tahini, baked goods, soups, desserts, pastes and more are harder or nearly impossible to identify.

Food manufacturers are more careful about disclosing the ingredients they include if not doing so would be grounds for lawsuits, Eitches said.

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“If you remove the ability to be litigious, then there’s going to be problems,” Eitches said. For example, he added, supermarket bakers may be less fearful about including powdered or ground sesame seeds if they are not required to and therefore not liable for any potential harms to customers.

“The way an allergen is identified by the FDA as one that must be labeled is due to the quantity of people who are allergic,” Gable said in a prior interview with CNN. “Take sesame, for example: What’s happened is you’ve had an increase in the number of people who are having anaphylaxis due to sesame. There are various opinions as to why that is, but one reason might be the fact that it is now more of an underlying ingredient within a lot of dietary trends.”

When people with sesame allergies are buying and eating food, they can stay safe by being “very careful” about eating certain foods and in restaurants, Eitches said.

Middle Eastern, vegan and Japanese restaurants are more likely to cook different forms of sesame seeds into their dishes, he added.

Sesame allergies affect people of all ages and can appear as coughing, itchy throat, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth rash, shortness of breath, wheezing and blood pressure drops, Eitches said. Those who suspect that they are sensitive or allergic to sesame should see a specialist who can answer their questions and provide medications and devices for emergency situations.

Adrenaline and epinephrine are more effective than diphenhydramine, he added. If an allergic reaction occurs, be prepared with any medications and devices and seek medical help.

CNN’s Sandee LaMotte contributed to this report.