Food allergy and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening condition) have been recognised for many years. Among the most common causes are peanuts and shellfish. Everyday staples such as cow's milk and wheat can also cause similar reactions, but seeds?
30 years ago, we may not have been able to tell the difference between a sesame seed and a sunflower seed. Today, they're sprinkled on our bread, appear in our breakfast cereals and may even be hidden in our lunchbox! They've simply been introduced into the UK in recent years and are incorporated into many everyday foods, resulting in unpleasant reactions in some individuals.
In the UK, it's not known exactly how many people have seed allergy and although still considered rare, it does appears to be on the increase. In Australia, sesame seed allergy is around 0.4%, with the most severe reactions to sesame oil and paste (tahini).
Mustard seed allergies are also rare in the UK. In Europe however, allergy to mustard is more common.
And then there are pine nuts - sometimes called pine kernels. Despite their name, they are not nuts at all, although those who are allergic to peanuts, or more than one type of nut, can also be allergic pine nuts.
As with all allergies, seed allergies are more common amongst infants and young children.
Rashes, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting and breathing difficulties are some of the common symptoms when allergenic (allergy-causing) foods or drinks are consumed. This is because the body thinks a certain protein within the seed is harmful; the immune system releases a substance called histamine into the bloodstream and this causes the symptoms. Not all reactions involve the immune system; these are known as ‘non-allergic' and are usually of a milder nature.
It may surprise you to know that sesame is not only something we eat - it can appear in our lipstick, moisturiser or shampoo! As a result, symptoms such as skin rashes can occur when you don't think you've been anywhere near a sesame seed.
Management of seed allergies
Although most reactions are mild to moderate, it can never be assumed that a more severe reaction won't occur in the future. It's important that medical advice is sought so that any necessary medication can be carried with you at all times.
Reading food labels
Hummous and tahini (paste) are both popular sesame products. If you're into Greek, Asian or Japanese food, you may also be familiar with halvah or gomashio, both made from sesame seeds. Unfortunately, avoiding sesame means more than avoiding just these foods. Sesame is included in so many pre-packed foods, especially baked products, that it is essential you read the ingredients list on everything you buy.
Bread and baked products which are sold loose in bakeries must always be treated cautiously as they may be contaminated with sesame from other products.
The Latin name for sesame is actually Sesamum indicum, so it is important to look out for this name too, especially in cosmetics.
The good news for those who are allergic to mustard is that it is used less commonly than sesame in the food industry and therefore is easier to avoid. Below is a list of foods to watch out for:
- Mustard seeds and flowers
- Sprouted mustard seeds
- Mustard powder
- Liquid mustard
- Mustard leaves
- Mustard oil
... and where they might be contained:
- Salad dressings
- Meat products
As with mustard seeds, pine nuts are not an everyday ingredient. Perhaps the most well-known product made with pine nuts is pesto. Some pesto is made with peanuts instead of pine nuts so if you have peanut allergy you should also avoid pesto, unless you have either made it yourself, or know exactly what's in the jar.
Sesame and mustard are two seeds that are required by European law to be stated on food labels, if the product contains them (or products of). You may also be guided by an allergy symbol, but don't rely solely on these - it's better to use all the information available to you, which includes the ingredients list.
At the moment, products containing pine nuts, or products of, are excluded from the above legislation. In reality, anyone can be allergic to any food or non-food that is a protein, but true allergies are rare and so to state all ingredients as an allergy risk would not be practical. Pine nuts is one of the less common allergy-causing foods, so for this reason you will always need to refer to the ingredients list.
When eating out, speak to the chef or restaurant manager to explain your or your child's condition and ask if they can prepare a separate meal if necessary. Sesame is frequently used in Oriental and vegetarian dishes, so these should be avoided at all costs, unless you can be certain of the ingredients being used.
Unfortunately, not all chefs are up to speed on nutrition, health and allergies - after all, cooking is their forte! Most are familiar with the risks of eating peanuts but not so much the risks associated with 'newer' allergic foods, such as seeds, so it's important that you take responsibility for knowing exactly what you're going to be served.
You may want to keep a food diary and note down any symptoms, or lack of symptoms, after seeds are eaten, noting down the type of seed associated with the reaction. If you notice a pattern developing, this may help rule out certain foods as being safe, or identify those that are not.
And one final tip! Make time to prepare your meals from fresh ingredients whenever possible, especially if sesame seeds are the cause of reactions - most of the sesame we eat is contained in processed food - so get out your apron!