From breakfast meetings to takeout or holiday potlucks to celebratory dinners, many of us take the ability to eat what we like, when we like, for granted. For others, grabbing that lunchtime wrap is an activity that must be cautiously navigated — because even a simple sandwich could be life-threatening. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimates that at least 220 million people globally live with food allergies, which can be especially serious in children. Technology is taking on the challenge, and several devices are in the works that use sensors and other electronics for instant tableside analysis of what’s on your plate.
One company offers a handheld gluten sensor and soon-to-be released peanut sensor, both of which analyze a pea-sized amount of food placed into the device and indicate if the allergen is present. These devices also connect to a smartphone app, allowing users to share results on restaurants and packaged goods.
Allergy Amulet is another portable device in development, which can test for milk, soy, dairy, shellfish and fish, eggs, and nuts. The device is designed to look like a piece of jewelry and operates on disposable strips that are dunked into food and then inserted into the reader for analysis.
At Brunel University in the UK, one student has received funding from the James Dyson Foundation for her prototype called Ally. It detects gluten using a test strip dipped in a food sample mixed with a few drops of water. A small device with a color sensor reads the strip and processes the result on a connected smartphone app.
These devices offer convenient point-of-use screening, although manufacturers caution that while they strengthen the line of defense for allergy sufferers, they do not yet provide a fail-safe guarantee. So, while some are working to prevent consumption of a potentially fatal allergen, other technologists are working on how to respond if something slips through.
In the worst cases, allergens trigger anaphylactic shock, a potentially life-threatening reaction. Many allergy sufferers carry an epinephrine autoinjector that can be administered in such cases. But people surrounding them also need the ability to recognize symptoms and know how to respond quickly, as delays can be fatal. AllerPal has created an app to share a child’s emergency treatment plan with key caregivers, making sure they know what symptoms to look for, how to treat them, and who to call. Similarly, the Rescufy app can share critical information with caregivers and emergency responders, and will also notify an allergy sufferer if they’re getting too far away from their injector.
One group of researchers is aiming to take things even further by developing a wearable to treat anaphylaxis right when it happens. The KeepSmilin4Abbie Foundation, created by the Benford family following the tragic death of their daughter, is helping fund research into a wearable that can detect early states of anaphylaxis and automatically inject epinephrine.
There may be a long way to go before people with food allergies can eat every meal with total confidence. But whether it is in detection or response, technology is taking significant steps toward saving lives.