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These Emoji Food Labels Could Save Allergy Sufferers’ Lives

Foreign travelers, kids, and anyone who suffers from allergies would have an easier time if there were symbols that could easily tell them what not to eat.

These Emoji Food Labels Could Save Allergy Sufferers’ Lives

Emoji could make food labels easier to read. Instead of first searching for the right label, then scanning the non-standard text and layout for the section on allergies or carbs, a glance would get you to the right place.

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Google engineer Hiroyuki Komatsu has submitted a proposal to Unicode to include food allergy emoji. Unicode is a standard for text that allows all devices to display the same characters, so you don’t get any annoying glitches in your rendered text. And as a standard, Unicode approves additions to its already huge body of symbols.

Komatsu’s proposal adds soybeans, peanuts, buckwheat, sesame, celery, lupin beans, mustard, and kiwi fruit to the standard, and also proposes symbols for “Tier 2” foods, those which won’t kill you, but which can cause other problems.

You’re thinking that emoji already has a bunch of food symbols, right? True, but not everything that would be needed for comprehensive food labeling. Emoji shrimp are dipped in tempura batter and deep fried, a delicious but non-obvious pictogram for folks who’ve never eaten Japanese food.

To fix this, Komatsu lays out which foods have poor representations, allergy-wise, and suggests alternatives. Milk shouldn’t be shown as a baby’s bottle, for example, and while there are emoji for both “ear of rice” and “bread,” there is no generic “grain.”

“Emoji should cover characters representing major food allergens,” says Komatsu, “It enables people to understand what [ingredients] are used in foods even in foreign countries and safely select meals.”

It’s a genius idea, and one which could make all food labeling more readable. Anyone from a country that uses the Latin alphabet will know how confusing things get when you travel to somewhere like Israel or Japan, or a country using Arabic script–you can’t even decipher one letter. Komatsu’s emoji could fix that for allergy sufferers, but also make labels easier to read. Kids could better police their own allergies, too.

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In fact, the glance-ability of images could make it a lot easier just to find out how much sugar your soft drink contains, instead of having to comb through tiny lists to find the numbers.

Komatsu’s idea has a long way to go. First the symbols need to be added to Unicode, and then they have to be adopted by the various food industries around the world. A tall order, but it would be worth it.

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About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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