Sesame allergies growing rapidly
Sesame oil has become ubiquitous in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries
André Picard, Public Health Reporter, Globe and Mail (Sept 2005(?))
Eden Prosser, like many four year-olds, loves bagels for their chewy goodness. But a bagel -- and many other common breads, crackers and cookies -- could kill the little girl, who is allergic to sesame.
"I make my own bread because it makes me feel a lot safer," said her mother, Alison Prosser. She has also found a bakery in her Richmond Hill, Ont., neighbourhood that will make special batches of sesame-free breads and bagels. But that is one of her few respites in safeguarding her daughter.
"Sesame is a really tough allergy to deal with because it's everywhere," Ms. Prosser said, rhyming off a long list of products that contain sesame seeds or oil -- buns, crackers, bread sticks pizza, cookies, salad dressing, noodles, falafel, hummus, chocolate, ice cream, lipstick, massage oil, moisturizing cream and soap, to name just a few.
According to an article in the most recent edition of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, sesame allergy is one of the fastest-growing allergies in the world.
"Sesame allergy is a significant, serious and growing problem," said Dr. Venu Gangur, a researcher in the nutritional immunology department at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. The number of people with allergic reactions tends to increase with exposure and, in recent years, sesame oil has become ubiquitous in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Dr. Gangur said sesame is used commonly in Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and South American cuisine, all of which have become commonplace in the developed world. Sesame oil has also come to replace peanut oil in many baked goods. (In Canada, sesame is one of nine "priority allergens" and must be listed on ingredient labels. The same is not true in the United States.)
Because it has many desirable properties, sesame has become the oil of choice in all manner of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, from eye drops to sunscreens.
While sesame allergy is increasing rapidly, it remains relatively unknown by the general public. "It's certainly not as prominent in the public consciousness as peanuts," Dr. Peter Vadas, the director of the division of allergy at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said in an interview. "Everybody knows about peanut allergy. But the same things can't be said about sesame."
Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada, agrees. "Peanut allergies get a lot of press, especially in the school environment, but something like sesame is just not well understood by the public," she said.
For Ms. Prosser, that ignorance is the biggest frustration, and the greatest source of danger to her daughter: "When you say 'peanut allergy' most people understand the danger. but when you say 'sesame allergy', they think it's just a dislike or preference. they don't realize it's life threatening."
Eden learned of her severe allergy before her first birthday when she dipped pita bread in a bit of hummus. Within seconds, she broke out in hives and stopped breathing. The girl now carries an ephedrine auto-injector (known commonly by the popular brand name EpiPen®), and can inject herself with the drug at the first hint of allergic reaction. Multiple allergies are common in people with severe allergies. In addition to sesame, Eden is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, some fish, mustard, sunflower seeds, dog fur and saliva, mould and mildew.
But sesame has been the most problematic. So far, Eden has had four anaphylactic reactions and "we've visited every hospital in the city," Ms. Prosser said.
Between 15 and 25 per cent of children with peanut allergy will outgrow it, but it is unclear whether sesame allergy can be outgrown, Dr. Vadas said.
Ms. Prosser has resigned herself to the fact the "Eden will probably have to live with this her whole life." She dreads the challenges that will arise when her daughter heads to school next year, and then more generally into a world where there is sesame oil everywhere, and little public knowledge of the risks.
"I wish people could put themselves in our shoes sometimes. Modern life revolves around eating but, for us, food is a constant threat," Ms. Prosser said.
And while she will do anything to protect Eden from exposure to allergens, she also worries about the issue become overwhelming. "I don't want her to be 'the allergic kid,'" Ms. Prosser said. "That's just one small part of her."