Sesame Free

What is sesame?

Sesame is a flowering plant with pods, cultivated in tropical regions for the edible sesame seeds which they contain. First cultivated over 3,000 years ago, sesame is the oldest oil seed crop known to man and is very tolerant of drought conditions, often surviving where other crops fail. Sesame seed is extremely high in oil content; which has a rich nutty flavor.  These qualities have led to sesame seed and sesame oil appearing as a common ingredient in cooking in numerous cuisines around the world. Sesame oil is also commonly found in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

What is a sesame allergy?

A sesame allergy is a type nut allergy where the specific proteins in sesame have an allergenic effect on your body, causing your immune system to overreact to their presence.

The allergens in sesame are similar in structure to those in peanuts, so the risk of also having an allergy to peanuts if you are allergic to sesame is quite high and should be investigated. This type of cross-reactivity is also true for sesame allergens and rye, kiwi, poppy seed and certain tree nuts (cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pistachio and walnut).

How do I know if I’m allergic to sesame?

The symptoms of an allergic reaction to sesame are like those associated with other nut allergies and can include: hives, eczema and hay-fever like symptoms, swelling of the mouth face and throat, difficulty breathing and, in extreme cases, anaphylaxis.  Some people can experience allergic reactions like skin rashes from topical exposure to sesame via exposure to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

An allergic reaction will normally occur within an hour of contact with the allergen. Doctors will use a combination of history, skin prick tests, blood tests and exclusion diets to help diagnose the allergy. People with other allergic conditions such as hay fever, asthma, and eczema (collectively a condition called ‘atopy’) are more likely to develop an allergy to sesame and other nuts. 

What does a sesame-free diet entail?

Sesame is typically used in South Asian, Chinese, South East Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Russian, Australian and European cuisines in various forms and is known by different names in different parts of the world. Asian foods use it quite heavily, and you should be careful with flavoured rice and noodles, as well as tempeh, stews, curries, stir fries and sushi. Another cuisine to be particularly watchful of when avoiding sesame is Middle Eastern - dressings and dips like hummus normally contain ground sesame, sesame oil or paste (tahini), as do spice mixes like Dukkah (check the ingredients on other vegetable dips carefully too). Middle Eastern main courses, like meat balls and stews, as well as sweets like baklava and halva also normally contain sesame. Baked goods like breads, pretzels and even snack bars also often contain sesame, and it is a commonly used in vegetarian dishes like vegeburgers and other meat substitutes as well as in salads and savory dishes.

When on a sesame free diet due to an allergy or sensitivity to sesame protein, remember to avoid sesame oil as well as sesame seed. Sesame oil is not normally highly processed or refined (like soy usually is), so the allergenic protein in the sesame remains intact and can trigger an allergic reaction. Sesame oil is often used in salads and cooking so it is always a good idea to ask the person who prepared the food if it is a hidden ingredient. Sesame oil is also often used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals because of its neutral, stable and inert properties. Also, it isn’t too viscous whilst being heat resistant, which makes it a good base and filler. It is also thought to be ‘nonsweating’ and ‘nonirritating’. It can therefore lurk unnoticed in cosmetic products like cream, lipstick and in pharmaceuticals like the progesterone shots used in fertility treatment. This is overcome by simply researching your cosmetics before you buy them and ensuring that your doctor and pharmacist are aware of your allergy.

What foods contain sesame? 

Foods that may contain sesame include:

  • Breads, cereals and crackers
  • Dips and spreads, like hummus
  • Sesame oil
  • Tahini
  • Tempeh
  • Some baked goods
  • Dressings, gravies, marinades, soups and sauces
  • Seasonings, flavoring and spices
  • Vegetable oils

A note on labelling and eating out

Because it is used widely in cuisines across the globe, sesame can appear in various different forms in recipes and ingredients lists. As well as anything with ‘sesame’ in the name (like black, brown or white sesame seed, sesame oil and sesame salt), watch out for: benne, gingelly seed, gingelly oil, til, til oil, pasteli, gomasio, sesarmol, seomolina,  sim sim, tahina and tahini.

In Europe, sesame is obliged to be listed on food labels as an allergen and you will see statements like: ‘May contain traces of sesame’ or ‘Processed in a facility that also processes sesame’. However, in the United States there is no requirement to declare sesame on product labels as it is not yet classified as a big food allergen alongside milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

Seemingly sesame-free goods purchased from delicatessens or bakeries may have been contaminated by other foods that contain sesame touching them, so if you are severely allergic, it would be a good idea to avoid them too. When eating out, it is a good idea to let your waiter and chef know that you are eating sesame-free rather than simply relying on the description of your meal, as it may be hidden in the dish, particularly with Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. Many wraps, for example, will often contain tahini or hummus as a spread to moisten the dish.

What are the risks and/or advantages of going sesame-free?

The advantages of eating sesame-free are evident for someone with a severe sesame allergy. However, sesame oil is thought to be quite healthy as it is low in saturated fats, contains antioxidents and is high in both polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and mono-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) which help lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). It is also believed to help lactation in nursing mothers and thought to be effective in relieving nerve, bone and joint problems.

However by avoiding sesame you are not risking loosing any nutritional advantages that can not be found elsewhere: other common cooking oils like safflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed and sunflower oils also contain MUFAs and PUFAs and berry fruits, apples and beans are all known to be high in antioxidents.