My wish for the future (or at least, one of them!): more consumer technology to help us understand what's in our food - before we put it in our mouths!
Here's how one device could change my world if extended further:
I was excited (as I'm sure we all were!) to hear about UCLA's awesome new invention, the iTube: a device that turns your cell phone into your own private portable, handheld gluten, peanut, almond, egg and hazelnut bloodhound -- awesome! Sign me up! As one who's throat closes if I so much as stand next to someone chopping hazelnuts, that sounds pretty darn good! Yeah, all right, so you need to grind the food up, shove it into a tiny tube, mix it with solvents and wait 20 minutes -- compare that to racing your child to an emergency room (something I blessedly have never had to face) and you have yourself a deal!
But better yet is the promise the leap forward holds. If we can turn our cell phones into a tiny version of Abby's mass-spectrometer (@NCIS), the chemistry of food is ripe to be busted right open. This holds tremendous potential for people who react to volatile substances in foods like histamines, which exist to varying degrees in different foods and build up in all foods over time. When your body doesn't produce enough of the enzyme needed to break down the histamines that you consume in your foods plus the histamine that you naturally produce in even a mild allergic reaction (such as for example with seasonal allergies), this histamines build up as a toxin in all of the tissues where you have histamine receptors -- including your gut, lungs and even brain.
Managing a sensitive histamine intolerance requires navigating a complex matrix of (1) whether this food is inherently high in histamine (or a histamine liberator -- but that's a whole other story), (2) whether it is not inherently high-histamine but has been prepared in a way that would increase histamine levels, such as by smoking, aging or fermenting it, and (3) whether it has been sitting on a food truck or in my refrigerator long enough to become a bona-fide histamine bomb. Needless to say, even Einstein would have had a tough time guessing the histamine content of what he was about to eat -- even if he had prepared it himself.
Realistically, I wouldn't expect the scientists at UCLA to jump right in to develop an app to measure histamine levels. It is only quite recently that this condition and the disparate range of symptoms it can produce has become scientifically known, and U.S. practitioners lag behind their European counterparts in diagnosing it. But at least in our household, histamine intolerance has become something very tangible, very real and very no-longer-subject-to-debate.
To be sure, we count ourselves as fortunate everyday that this isn't a life-threatening condition. For myself, the symptoms are annoying but can be managed: intense nausea, sudden narcolepsy, bloating, tachycardia, asthma attacks... you know, fun stuff. But by the time we figured out our older son's histamine intolerance, it had affected his cognition so dramatically that he was unable to finish a sentence, follow two-step directions, tell me what happened at school until the day after - or absorb even the slightest of bumps in the road without being reduced to sobs. His schoolwork suffered, too -- math tests left half-done and full of careless errors because he was unable to focus, and writing assignments at 3 sentences per hour because he was just staring out into space. On top of it all were gripping stomach aches that had him rolling in pain after every meal, and post nasal drip to beat the band.
Once we identified the source of the issue, put him on a strict low-histamine diet (which, by the way, is a real whopper!) and threw in a daily histamine, my son transformed literally within weeks into a different child. A bouncy, giggly, creative child who aces every math test and whipped off a 30-page tome on castles for a school assignment. In the second grade.
And yet, even though we now know the shape of our family's personal boogie man, avoiding it is not so easy. Often, after a meal that we think should be 'by the books', my son and I will know within minutes that we guessed wrong and we're in for a rough night. In his case, a real histamine overload can take a couple of days to fully clear (more if he's fighting a bug at the same time). We may not be going to the emergency room, but consequences are nonetheless real. Cognitive and emotional changes so dramatic that his teacher can spot it immediately if his system is overloaded. That's a tough way to learn.
And that's why the development of the iTube app is so exciting even beyond the world of life-threatening allergies. I'm not saying that I'd whip it out every night and make everyone wait 30 minutes while mommy tests the food, like the king's cat, before anyone can eat. But everyday I feel like I'm flying blind here. If I had just one month with a histamine-detector in my hands, I can only imagine how much better informed I would be about where the real fault lines lie. For starters, I could begin to sort out all the contradictory lists floating around the web about which foods really are high in histamine. But equally important, I could figure out how long can a seemingly 'safe' food sit in the fridge before being consumed as leftovers? Or how much higher are the histamines in locally-farmed meats and produce than in ones trucked in from Chile? Real data that would intelligently inform real decisions.
And so I tip my hat to the folks at UCLA. I applaud your decision to start with the most dangerous allergens and gluten. I'm glad you started there and I urge you to bring this literally life-saving tool to the market with all due speed. But then don't stop there. Keep up the good work -- we're all eagerly counting on you.