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Hard to uncover sesame seeds for those with the growing allergy

Not only in edible products

Sesame is found in a number of products, edible and otherwise. Sometimes it’s hidden, other times it’s obvious. Here are some of the common items that contain, or may contain sesame:

» Hamburger buns

» Bread

» Breadsticks

» Crackers

» Bagels

» Hummus

» Tahini

» Sesame oil

» Vegetable oils

» Spices

» Herbs

» Spaghetti sauce

» Vegetarian burgers

» Asian noodles

» Adhesive bandages

» Cosmetics

» Soaps

» Sunscreen

» Body oil, ointments and lubricants

» Pet food

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

Until the October day when she got a call from her son’s daycare, Lisa had never heard of a sesame allergy.

After eating hummus, 20-month-old William broke out in hives and vomited. He was given an EpiPen injection and rushed to the emergency room, where he recovered. He’d had a similar reaction a few months earlier, that time to peanuts. Since the initial reaction, his family and school had avoided giving him any nuts as they awaited an appointment with an allergist. But sesame hadn’t crossed their minds — neither had hummus.

“The doctor said avoid all nuts until you can see the allergist and get tested,” says the North Side mom, who asked that we not use her last name. “We didn’t think there was anything else we needed to be careful about. But hummus has tahini in it, which is made out of sesame seeds.” Lisa took William to the allergist the week following the sesame reaction, and his allergy skin tests indicated that he’s allergic to peanuts, sesame and cashews.

Her son is one of an increasing number of people being diagnosed with a sesame allergy. Back in 2005, a study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology referred to sesame allergy as a “significant, serious and growing problem,” in the United States and beyond. Scientists point to an increasing prevalence of sesame in our foods, as American palates embrace more Middle Eastern and Asian flavors, both of which use a lot of sesame (so does McDonald’s, for that matter, on its hamburger buns).

In Canada, sesame is included as one of the top allergens in the country and must be disclosed on food labels. But in the United States, it’s not considered one of the top eight allergens that account for nearly 90 percent of reactions (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish), and because of that, the FDA doesn’t require food manufacturers to print “contains sesame,” as they do with the other prominent allergens.

To further complicate matters, sesame can appear under a number of different names — benne, gingelly, sesamol, sesamolina, sesamum indicum, sim sim, tahini, til or simply “seeds” — so no matter how closely you read the a label, you may not be aware of its presence. Lisa says that she scours labels now, looking for any key words that could indicate sesame. “I just read everything,” she says. “I didn’t read labels before.”

Dr. Raoul Wolf, section chief of pediatric allergy and immunology with University of Chicago Medicine, says that recognition of the sesame allergy is a relatively new thing. He explains that several years ago, scientists noticed a cross reaction with sesame and peanuts — meaning that if a person is allergic to peanuts, the odds are higher that he or she also may be allergic to sesame. Wolf estimates that sesame “cross reacts” about 25 to 30 percent of the time with peanuts.

The reactions are similar to those seen in peanut allergies. “It can cause the usual panoply of reactions, which would be hives or swelling, and then in more severe cases, difficulty breathing, swallowing and even life-threatening reactions, such as shock,” says Wolf.

He adds that we still have a lot to learn about allergies — especially when it comes to cross reactions.

“To me, it’s the unexpected nature, because they’re not in the same family. Sesame is a seed, it’s not even a nut. Peanut isn’t even a nut, it’s a legume. So why a legume and a seed, which have nothing whatever to do with each other, should cross react is a little puzzling from an epidemiologic point of view,” he says.

That unexpectedness, says Wolf, invites even more questions. “What else cross reacts that may not have been recognized?”

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