Despite the growing number of people who are allergic to sesame seed products, a new study suggests awareness of this type of food allergy still lags far behind other common food allergies.

Researchers reviewed recent studies on sesame allergy and found reports of sesame allergy have risen dramatically worldwide since the first case was documented in the U.S. in 1950. The problem affects people in all age groups.

For example, an Israeli study showed that sesame allergy was the third most common food allergy found in children after egg and cow's milk allergies. In addition, sesame was second only to cow's milk as the leading cause of anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly reaction to allergy-causing substances that requires immediate medical attention.

Researchers say sesame has been added to the list of major allergy-causing substances (allergens) for use in food labeling by Canada and the European Commission, but the FDA has not added sesame to its list.

The FDA's food allergen awareness programs currently focus on eight common foods that cause serious allergic reactions, including milk, fish, eggs, tree nuts, wheat, legumes (particularly peanuts and soybeans), crustaceans (such as shrimp and lobster), and mollusks (including mussels, clams, and oysters).

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Sesame Allergy Growing as Use Grows

Sesame seeds are most commonly used in the food industry, such as in salad dressing, bakery products, and ethnic foods. But sesame oil is also used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries in ointments, capsules, soaps, and lipsticks.

Researchers say that in spite of the growing use of sesame seed and oil in these industries, research and public awareness on sesame allergy is very limited.

Their review shows reports of occupational exposure to sesame seeds has resulted in allergic reactions among bakers that caused asthma and other problems. In other cases, sesame seed oil in injections, ointments, and cosmetics have been reported to cause contact allergic dermatitis, such as skin rash.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), an estimated 40 to 50 million Americans have allergies. Only 1 percent to 2 percent of all adults are allergic to foods or food additives. Eight percent of children under age 6 have adverse reactions to ingested foods; only 2 percent to 5 percent have confirmed food allergies.

Symptoms of food allergy include vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, hives, skin rash, headaches, asthma, and respiratory symptoms, such as sneezing, congestion, and runny nose.

Researchers say that more research is needed to understand the prevalence of sesame allergy. They also say that including sesame on the list of the FDA's common food allergens could raise awareness and prevent potentially life-threatening sesame allergy among children and adults.

The results of their study appear in the July issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Ganour, V. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, July 2005; vol 95: pp 4-11. News release, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.