Food allergies are a growing concern worldwide, affecting millions of people and often posing life-threatening risks. Sesame seeds have recently gained recognition as a major allergen, leading to regulatory changes in food labeling. 

However, another unsuspecting ingredient has quietly flown under the radar: pink peppercorns. These tiny, bright red spices have caused severe allergic reactions in some individuals, yet they remain overlooked by regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

In this article, we will explore why pink peppercorns should be added to the list of known allergens, shedding light on the broader issue of spices and allergen labeling.

Pink peppercorns are an underestimated allergen. They are not peppercorns. Scientifically known as Schinus terebinthifolius, pink peppercorns are dried berries, from fruit in the tree nut family. They are often found in various culinary dishes and spice blends. They add a unique, peppery and slightly fruity flavor that many enjoy. 

However, for some individuals, consuming pink peppercorns can be a life-threatening gamble. Allergic reactions to these spices can range from mild skin irritations to severe anaphylaxis, a sudden and potentially fatal allergic reaction. 

While anecdotal reports and isolated cases of pink peppercorn allergies have existed for years, the lack of comprehensive data has hindered regulatory action. As a result, pink peppercorns are not currently classified as a known allergen by the FDA or required to be included on food labels. This oversight poses a significant risk to those with allergies or sensitivities to this spice.

The FDA has limited oversight on spices. The primary reason for the FDA’s inadequate oversight of spices, including pink peppercorns, is the general perception that spices are not a significant source of allergens. 

The majority of allergic reactions are associated with common food allergens such as peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat, soy and shellfish. As a result, spices have been largely overlooked in the context of allergen regulation.

The FDA’s focus on allergen labeling has been primarily directed toward major food categories and ingredients frequently found in processed foods. While these efforts have certainly improved food safety for many consumers, they have inadvertently left others at risk. Spices, despite their smaller quantities in dishes, can still elicit severe allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

In a perfect world, spice companies would remove pink peppercorns from those popular peppercorn medleys. Aside from their vibrant color, pink peppercorns do not bring much to the culinary table. Their mild flavor is lost in the mix of black, green and white peppercorns. Restaurants use pink peppercorns to garnish soups and salads. 

Surely with a soupcon of imagination, cooks can find another colorful food topping, a spice not known to trigger an allergic reaction to tree nuts.   

Adding pink peppercorns to the list of known allergens is a critical step in ensuring the safety of individuals with tree nut allergies. This inclusion would require manufacturers to clearly label products containing pink peppercorns, making it easier for consumers to identify and avoid potentially harmful foods. 

“Adding a food like pink peppercorns to the FDA list of major allergens is a complex and lengthy process that involves various regulatory steps, scientific evaluations and public input,” says Dr. Steven J. Czinn, Chair, Department of Pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Czinn adds, “it can take years. But it can be done. Sesame seeds were added to the list in January of 2023.” 

“One in 200 people are allergic to sesame seeds. There is evidence that tree nut allergies are increasing, now would be a good time to bring attention to pink peppercorns. For those who are allergic, even trace amounts can trigger a response,” says Dr. Czinn.  

The inclusion of pink peppercorns would require manufacturers to clearly label products containing pink peppercorns, making it easier for consumers to identify and avoid potentially harmful foods.

Addressing the issue of pink peppercorn allergies and advocating for better allergen labeling for spices requires collaboration among various stakeholders. This includes food manufacturers, healthcare professionals, regulatory agencies and advocacy groups. Each stakeholder can collect data on pink peppercorn allergies, raise public awareness and collectively push for regulatory changes.

Pink peppercorns may be small in size, but their potential to cause severe allergic reactions is undeniable. The lack of allergen labeling for spices like pink peppercorns poses a significant risk to individuals with allergies. It’s time for regulatory agencies like the FDA to recognize this hidden allergen and take action to protect consumers. 

By adding pink peppercorns to the list of known allergens and ensuring consistent allergen labeling for all spices, we can help make our food supply safer for everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable to allergic reactions.

Jayne Hopson
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