Food allergy rates have been climbing over the last several years, and today as many as 15 million Americans have food allergies. This is a 50% increase between 1997 and 2011 and school-age children are especially vulnerable, disproportionately suffering from allergies to common foods like milk, wheat, peanuts, and soy. That’s why, in order to decrease the prevalence of life-threatening reactions among young children, researchers are looking to smart technology devices that can detect allergens, alert caregivers, and keep vulnerable individuals safe.

Allergies, Intolerances, And Autoimmune Reactions

Though allergies are quite common, many people confuse allergies, food intolerances, and immunological reactions to food – and each is very different. For example, wheat allergies are different from Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune response triggered by the gluten protein found in wheat. In Celiac disease, the body attacks the lining of the colon, viewing the host body as a foreign substance.

Allergies are, by definition, an immune response to a harmless substance, explains iCliniq doctor and pediatric allergy specialist Parin Niranjanbhai Parmar. The body attempts to attack that protein by releasing histamines. This can result in anaphylaxis, a multisystem reaction that can cause GI problems, skin reactions, and may result in airway obstruction and death. Intolerances, on the other hand, are often the result of preexisting GI problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lack of certain digestive enzymes, as seen in lactose intolerance, or a sensitivity to certain compounds.

Though all of these reactions are biologically different, many of the devices designed to protect against allergies can also detect contamination that can trigger autoimmune reactions or symptoms of food intolerance. As these devices improve, they will likely have a significant customer base.

Detecting Contaminants

Gluten sensitivity is one of the most digestive complaints today, and many people eliminate gluten to manage unrelated health disorders, such as IBS, ADHD, autism, and skin issues. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 foods marked gluten-free actually contains some gluten contaminants. The risk of cross-contamination is also very high when dining out, even when kitchens take precautions to protect diners.

One device that can detect the presence of gluten is the Nima; a device brought to market by MIT researchers in 2016. Nima uses sensor technology to test a small piece of food and within two minutes can identify the presence of gluten. It can help protect patients with Celiac, wheat allergies, and varying levels of gluten sensitivity. A peanut-detecting version of Nima is also in development.

Diagnostics In Disguise

One of the difficulties of living with any serious health condition is that medical equipment can be hard to disguise and unsightly to wear. As children get older, they often reject medical alert bracelets, insulin pumps, and other tools meant to keep them safe. By disguising allergy detection technology as a fashionable accessory, however, tweens and teens are more likely to take advantage of the tools available to them.

The Allergy Amulet is a fashionable solution meant to encourage users to test their food for allergens. The device contains test strips and can be worn as a necklace or bracelet, or stored in a special smartphone case and used to prevent accidental exposures. Originally designed to detect peanut proteins in concentrations as low as 1-2 ppm, the device is also being tested on common allergens such as egg, gluten, and shellfish.

Fast-Tracking Interventions

Finally, when it comes to food allergies in children, even those who are prepared to use their auto injectors can struggle to self-treat in a timely fashion. And if a trained adult isn’t nearby, anaphylaxis can advance and be deadly. That’s why one of the most important innovations in the allergy world is technology that helps children and teens get help before it’s too late.

Harvard, working in partnership with the KeepSmilin4Abbie Foundation, has been researching a way to identify and speed treatment of anaphylaxis by creating a wearable auto injector that can measure early physiological changes and dose patients with epinephrine at the start of a reaction. With the growth of other auto-injection technology, such as that used in diabetes, this technology is primed for the market.

Food allergies can cause anxiety, limits on socialization, and even bullying, but advanced tech can minimize the impact such reactions have on children’s lives. Particularly as food allergy rates continue to rise, the importance of on the go testing and intervention will only become more important.

Frank Landman

Frank is a freelance journalist who has worked in various editorial capacities for over 10 years. He covers trends in technology as they relate to business.