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Hold The Seeds, Please


Peanut allergy has gotten a lot of press over the past few years. We are warned of its dangers by food labels in the supermarket, signs in our kids’ schools, and articles on the Internet. But what many of us don’t know is that a growing number of people are also developing allergies to seeds, particularly sesame seeds. In fact, sesame seeds are one of the six most common allergens, but while Canada and the European Commission have already made it mandatory to report their presence in food and cosmetic products, the U.S. has not. Until it does, Americans concerned about this allergy must be especially vigilant.

This may prove a daunting task, however, for sesame products are used in many of our favorite foods, both healthy and sinful. Everything from bagels and pastries to rice cakes and granola bars contain sesame protein. Not even McDonald’s is safe; the fast-food giant purchases three-fourths of Mexico’s sesame seeds for their famous hamburger buns.

According to doctors like Dr. Ama Alexis of the Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, the problem may only get worse as we broaden our culinary horizons. Sesame seeds are a staple in many cultures, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, so chances are that Americans will continue to see an increase in the allergic reactions as we diversify our diets. To protect ourselves, we must make sure to check labels when grocery shopping, keeping in mind that companies often swap ingredients on us.

Here are some buzz words that indicate the presence of sesame seed protein:

  • Benne/benne seed/benniseed
  • Halvah
  • Hummus
  • Tahini
  • Sesame oil (also known as gingelly or til oil)
  • Sesamol/sesamolina
  • Sim sim
  • Vegetable oil

Also other seeds may cause an allergic reaction:

  • Flaxseeds
  • Poppy seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seed

Baked goods (breads, buns, rolls, crackers, cookies, pastries, bagels, etc.) and certain cereals (e.g., muesli) often contain sesame and other seeds (e.g., poppy, sunflower).

Dining out is also dangerous territory, so always ask your server whether the restaurant uses sesame products.

Sesame seeds may also be lurking in other products, including lipsticks, soaps and shampoos, moisturizers and ointments; even pet food and livestock feed.

According to the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology, the most common allergy symptoms include hives, eczema stomach and breathing problems, and swelling of the face and throat. Another study found that children with tree nut allergies are three times more likely to have a reaction to sesame seeds.

If you or your child has unexplained hives, it may be time for a trip to Dr. Mike to see whether sesame protein is the culprit. But don’t expect a definitive answer from the usual skin and blood tests; the only way to be sure is to ingest the seeds and wait for a reaction. Obviously, this should not be done if you suspect anaphylaxis may occur.



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