Spotlight on sesame allergy: little seeds that can cause big reactions

Who knew that a little seed could cause so many problems? Sesame seeds can be a very potent allergen if you have a sesame allergy.

Sesame allergy is similar to nut allergy. The majority of people won’t grow out of it as they get older and it is likely to be a lifelong problem. It can cause severe reactions (anaphylaxis).

Spotlight on sesame: little seeds that can cause big reactions.  Breads and seeds.

What is sesame?

Sesame is a flowering plant. It produces green pods which contain edible seeds. The seeds can be either creamy white or black.

Oil made from sesame seeds is a dark, brownish colour. Often sesame oil is unrefined, so it can still be a cause of severe allergic reactions.

Sesame paste, called tahini, is commonly used in foods and is a frequent cause of reactions to sesame.

If you have a confirmed sesame allergy, you should avoid sesame in all of these forms (unless your allergist gives you different advice).

Sesame labelling

Labelling laws are different in different countries.

Sesame is one of the top ten allergens and must be listed on food ingredient labels in Australia. And it is one of the top 14 allergens in the UK. It is also considered a “priority” allergen in Canada, because it is one of the allergens that causes the most reactions. In April 2021, after a great deal of lobbying by the allergy community, sesame was finally added to the top allergens in the US too.

Sometimes it can be hard to check food labels for sesame ingredients because sesame has a few different names. Especially in imported foods. Other names for sesame include Anjonoli, benne, gingelly, simsim or til.

Infographic with other names for sesame seeds, paste and oil
Other names for sesame

Foods with sesame ingredients

Turkish, Middle Eastern and Asian foods often include sesame as an ingredient. It is also becoming increasingly popular in vegetarian and health foods to add flavour.

Sometimes the presence of sesame is obvious. For example, sesame seed bars and snacks (including pasteli) or when you can see sesame sprinkled on top of s salad, bread or a hamburger bun.

However, often it it is hard to tell if a food contains sesame, especially if it is used as an oil or paste.

Sesame is often used in:

  • bakery products (sweet and savoury)
  • baklava and halva (desserts)
  • biscuits and crackers, including rice crackers and rice cakes
  • confectionery (bars and sweets)
  • breakfast foods like muesli or porridge
  • dips – particularly hummus, a popular chickpea dip made with tahini (sesame paste)
  • herbs and spices, including dukkah and za’tar
  • marinades
  • risotto
  • salads
  • sauces, dressings, chutneys and condiments
  • sausages and processed meats
  • sushi (often used on inside out rolls)
  • stir fries and curries
  • vegetarian burgers and meat replacements

Watch out for drinks too. Aqua Libra is a sparkling water that contains sesame.

Like any other food allergy, you should always read the ingredients carefully. We do this 3 times: once before buying, again when putting away, and a third time before eating.

Eating out at a restaurant can be very challenging with a sesame allergy. As always, you need to disclose your allergy upfront. And ask a lot of questions, including about the use of sesame oil in dishes.

If you have an EpiPen, always carry two with you together with a copy of your Action Plan.

The accidental sesame

Even if you are a seasoned pro at understanding different names for sesame and what foods it might be in, this pesky little seed manages to lurk in places you don’t want it to.

Sesame "may be present" in this bread

Bread and bakery products are a big one in our experience. You’ve probably seen “may contain sesame” on bread labelling. We buy big name branded bread from the supermarket with this warning, and luckily have not yet had any accidental exposure. But what about smaller local producers, breads manufactured in house at the supermarket or bread from the local bakery?

The sesame inspection

Our answer is the “sesame inspection“. Every time we buy bread, or are served a bread roll or slice of bread at a restaurant, we inspect the crust for any sign of sesame seeds. Especially underneath, as bread without sesame is often placed on the same trays as bread or buns with sesame. Seeds easily get stuck to the bottom.

If there are seeds anywhere on the bread, we know that there is a high risk of cross contamination. And then it is best not to eat it at all.

Do you buy bread at your local bakery? Or do you ever ask the staff at the bakery to slice a loaf on the slicing machine? What if the slicer is covered in sesame seeds from a different type of bread? You need to be aware of how your bakery makes, stores and handles bread products. And make your decisions about consuming bakery products on based on that information.

We do buy bread from our bakery, but ask for rolls that are not stored near anything with sesame and slice our loaves at home. And do the “sesame inspection” every time.

Eating bread? Don't forget the sesame inspection.  Bread roll with sesame seeds.

More about sesame allergies

Did you know that sesame is sometimes used in non-food products like sunscreen? You can read more here: 10 personal care products to check for food allergens

Surrounded by hummus lovers? It is easy to make your own hummus dip without sesame. Try our easy recipe for delicious hummus without tahini. All of the recipes on our recipe page are sesame free.

If you have a sesame allergy, you can download a handy sesame allergy card from Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia’s website here.

Have you been prescribed an EpiPen or other autoinjector for a serious sesame allergy? You should read these posts as well:

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*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.

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