Could Emojis Make the Difference in the Fight Against Food Allergies?

A new proposal wants to take our favorite texting shortcuts and bring them into the realm of international public health.

image via (cc) flickr user intelfreepress

For anyone with food allergies, international travel poses a particularly daunting challenge. Language barriers coupled with unfamiliar cultural culinary norms dramatically increase the risk of someone with an allergy accidentally ingesting something dangerous. Even if a traveler manages to avoid all their particular allergens, chances are they’ll have had to spend considerable time and effort to do so.

Enter: The emoji.

In the last few years, we’ve seen the humble emoji transcend its origin as simple texting shortcuts and become a tool to educate, to make our technology more secure, and even protect the most vulnerable among us. Now, advocates of a new plan want to transform the colorful icons into an easy way to identify potential hazards for food allergy sufferers, no matter what language they speak. In a proposal to the Unicode Consortium (the nonprofit group that regulates the development and implementation of all text—including emojis—in nearly all modern software platforms), Google engineer Hiroyuki Komatsu has laid out plans for a new line of emoji intended to be used on menus and food wrappers, which will alert consumers to any potential allergens therein.

image via (cc) flickr user catbeurnier

Writes Komatsu: “Emoji should cover characters representing major food allergens. It enables people to understand what nutritions are used in foods even in foreign countries and safely select meals.” The proposal then goes on to list his recommended emoji additions based on the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally used standards and practices concerning food production and safety measures. For example, while there are emoji for eggs, octopi, and crab, there aren’t any for more common food allergens such as peanuts, soybeans, and kiwis. And although some allergens, *do* have an emoji equivalent, they are imperfect ones, at best (“milk,” for example, is currently emojified as a baby’s bottle, while “glutin” is simply a loaf of bread).

As Vice points out, a recent Unicode update did include a number of food-emoji additions. Komatsu’s recommendations, however, were not among them. That doesn’t mean, though, that his proposal won’t necessarily find its way into future emoji bundles. In fact, there is already a precedent of using emotive pictograms (but, not the ubiquitous emoji themselves) to warn consumers of ingestive hazards: Mr. Yuk, the instantly recognizable day-glo portrait of a cartoon face gagging, was created in 1970 to warn children against swallowing harmful household chemicals.

Still, for the time being, international eaters will just have to make do with clumsy hand gestures, raised voices, and awkward pronunciation in order to ensure their order doesn’t contain peanuts (or shellfish, or gluten, or….) Someday soon, however, we may all be able to open an emoji-augmented menu anywhere on Earth, and order with confidence, no translation necessary.

[via smithsonian mag]

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