Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Alergic To Fast Food

It is well-known that peanut allergies can be severe -- even lethal. What most people don't know, though, is that sesame -- both its seeds and oil -- despite its many healthful properties, also can cause allergies with equally severe reactions. The incidence of sesame allergy is rising (in 1996, one in 2,000 people suffered from it and one in 90 people suffered from peanut allergy) though it is not a surprise given the rising popularity of sesame in our food supply -- in particular, feeding it to babies whose immune systems are still developing. Fast-food restaurants use sesame seeds on their buns... the seeds are ubiquitous in breads, crackers and the like... and the oil and paste are turning up in salad dressings and soups. Middle-Eastern restaurant chefs use sesame with a heavy hand, and manufacturers are using it in a multitude of cosmetics and ointments -- even as a part of the material in gel capsules for medications.

BEYOND PEANUTS: What you need to know about sesame allergies
To heighten awareness of sesame allergies, Michigan State University food scientist Venugopal Gangur, DVM, PhD, and colleagues searched the medical literature for reports concerning sesame allergy. The first published case in the US he found was from 1950, and reports since then have led to more than a dozen articles in the 1990s reporting on nearly 1,000 patients. In Europe and Canada, health authorities have put sesame on the lists of major food allergens, and Canada and the UK have mandated that products carrying it must be so labeled. The FDA in this country, however, has been slow to follow suit, which researchers find perplexing, given the danger. I called Dr. Gangur to talk about the problem of sesame allergy. He says that the reason sesame (as well as peanut) allergies are on the rise is likely due to a combination of better diagnosing and reporting and the fact that so many more products now contain sesame in some form. Allergic people react to sesame in foods or in products used topically. Topical products can cause atopic dermatitis as well as internal reactions just as ingesting sesame can cause skin eruptions -- runny nose, asthma attacks and, most severely, anaphylaxis, the potentially fatal reaction that involves breathing difficulty. Dr. Gangur explains that people must increase their vigilance about a potential sesame allergy, in particular those who have peanut or other nut allergies, because there is evidence that these allergies overlap. Anyone who has a suspicious reaction to sesame should see an allergist to be tested. Unfortunately, people do not outgrow this allergy -- it might actually become more severe. Avoiding sesame is the only treatment, although there are ongoing efforts to develop vaccines against these allergies, says Dr. Gangur. In the meantime, allergic people should keep inhalers and other medicines and devices at hand to control reactions. Severely allergic people should keep epeniphrine at hand, as it is the only life-saving drug for acute reactions.


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