How a new law requiring food labels to include sesame resulted in an explosion of products containing—sesame

nutrition label on a container of hummus
Hummus, along with many other packaged foods contain the allergen ingredient sesame. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

To the dismay of the growing number of Americans with a sesame allergy, food manufacturers are reacting to a new regulation requiring them to list the seed on food labels by actually adding sesame to more products.

Chick-Fil-A, Wendy’s and Olive Garden are all adding sesame to baked goods that have not contained sesame—including Chick-Fil-A’s white bun and multigrain brioche.

Other manufacturers are doing the same, limiting the food choices of hundreds of thousands of Americans with a sesame allergy.

National food safety expert Darin Detwiler, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern, spoke to Northeastern Global News about the forces behind unanticipated and unwelcome consequences of the new food labeling regulation—and whether there is relief in sight for allergy sufferers.

Expense of compliance with new federal law

A new federal law that went into effect Jan. 1 calls for all food made in the U.S. to be labeled if it contains sesame, the ninth food allergen identified by the Food and Drug Administration after milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

Detwiler says there are three reasons why companies are labeling more food products as containing sesame.

“One is that they were already including it and not listing it,” he says.

headshot of darin detwiler
Darin Detwiler, Assistant Dean of Academic and Faculty Affairs at Northeastern University

Sesame is used in a wide variety of food products, from bread, cookies and chips to deli meats, dressings, soups and imitation dairy foods. Like peanut products, powders and other forms of sesame have proved their worth as inexpensive thickening agents and shelf stabilizers, Detwiler says.

Another reason for the increased listing of sesame is that it’s less expensive and time consuming to list it as an ingredient than to “completely validate that it does not exist in their production facility, in their processes and in the manufacturing of their products,” Detwiler says.

“Legally speaking, it’s easier for them to say ‘It’s in there’ than ‘It’s not in there,’” he says.

Additionally, companies that sell sesame may be offering food manufacturers incentives to start using more sesame as they anticipate a downturn in sesame sales due to the new regulation, Detwiler says.

“The sesame industry is saying, ‘What are we going to do to make sure that people are buying sesame?’” he says, adding that sesame has been labeled an allergy on European food products for years.

Reasons for adding or listing sesame “may be honest reasons,” Detwiler says. “And they may be kind of shady.”

An allergy, not a preference

The problem is that a sesame allergy is not a simple food preference but a medical issue that can be potentially life threatening if a sufferer goes into anaphylaxis, Detwiler says.

According to a 2019 article in JAMA Open Network, more than 1.5 million Americans may be allergic to sesame, a higher number than previously suspected.

According to a 2019 article in Healthline, Dr. Michael Pistiner, an allergy specialist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, lays blame for the increasing number of people and children allergic to sesame to increased consumption of sesame-containing products.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health say 17% of children with food allergies are also allergic to sesame. 

Even so, companies such as United States Bakery and Pan-O-Gold Baking Co., which provides food items to schools in the Midwest, are adding small amounts of sesame to products such as buns and rolls, according to the Associated Press.

The rise in sesame-containing products means that parents who rejoiced over the new federal law are faced with more anxiety than ever, Detwiler says.

“Now you’re sending your kid off to school and finding that everything has sesame, there’s no option other than food with sesame.”

“In fact, there’s probably an increase in the likelihood of their being sesame in the building now,” Detwiler says. “It really becomes a scenario where consumers who were most impacted by sesame are now more worried than they were before.”

Consumer groups will affect change

Detwiler, who is chairman of the National Environmental Health Association food safety program, says consumer groups as well as restaurant and retail organizations eventually will pressure food manufacturers to back off from adding and listing sesame to an ever growing list of foods.

“Consumer groups are saying, ‘You can’t just say everything has sesame in it and there’s nothing left for us to eat,’” says Detwiler, who appears on the January/February cover of Quality Assurance and Food Safety Magazine as one of the most influential people in food safety over the past three decades.

He says the fight to have fewer consumers harmed by sesame products isn’t over with the new labeling law going into effect. 

“We did this in 2004,” with the food allergen labeling and consumer protection act that required labeling of the first eight allergens identified by the FDA, he says.

“We can do it again.”

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at