This Pocket Breathalyzer Could Help Identify Which Foods Make You Sick

May 25, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Man breathes into Aire, a pocket breathalyzer that analyzes digestion
Photo credit: Courtesy of FoodMarble

Using hydrogen breath testing.

For those with sensitive stomachs, going out to try new foods can be more of a stressful experience than an enjoyable one. Engineer Aonghus Shortt took matters into his own hands after moving in with his girlfriend and witnessing her struggles with irritable bowel syndrome — behold Aire, his brainchild.

Aire is an iPod-sized device that could help people suffering from digestive issues pinpoint which foods to stay away from. According to Shortt, the product uses a technique called hydrogen breath testing to measure the user’s intolerance to certain foods.

During digestion, hydrogen gas forms in the colon before entering the bloodstream and lungs, which gives gastroenterologists a way to analyze the link between the food consumed and the reaction in the body afterwards.

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As explained on the website of his company, FoodMarble, the personal digestive tracker allows users to test their compatibility with a meal by taking a breath reading before and after. The device is also hooked up to an iPhone or Android app via Bluetooth, so data can be sent to the phone and spit back a recommendation based on the user’s measured food tolerance.

However, in an interview with Tech Insider, Shortt stresses that Aire isn’t intended to be used for self-diagnoses. "The doctor might give them some dietary advice and then they're on their own," he says. "We want to be the support that comes right after they get that news."

He also hopes that Aire will be a handy tool for IBS-sufferers to share their results with their doctor, creating a more comprehensive dataset of their food intolerances. Further, he envisions that users with the same food or additive intolerances will be able to share recipes with one another, since IBS can be difficult to openly talk about.

FoodMarble conducted a user trial with the device, but the results haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed publication. The researchers also have to compare the device’s accuracy against the existing hydrogen breathalyzer devices used in hospitals.

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James Brief, a pediatric gastroenterologist and chief medical officer of FoodMarble, tells Tech Insider that he sees potential in the device. In his own medical practice, he uses a hydrogen breath testing device that requires the patient to submit breath tests every 15 minutes for up to three hours after consuming the potentially bothersome food. Plus, they have to fast prior to using the device in order for it to work.

Brief says the devices in hospitals are about the size of a microwave and cost $25,000 each.

The Aire devices will be much more affordable — if all goes according to plan, they’ll cost Kickstarter backers $99 a pop. The crowdfunding campaign launches September 6.

Aire hydrogen breathalyzers

Courtesy of FoodMarble

The company also hopes to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which would enable the device to be used in hospitals.

However, it’s important to understand that hydrogen breath testing isn’t completely reliable.

“These tests have a number of limitations,” researchers wrote in a 2006 study published in the journal Gut. “The relevance of maldigestion of specific carbohydrates, such as lactose and fructose, in functional gastrointestinal disorders is probably overestimated.”

The paper recommends that the breath tests be paired with other techniques, bringing us back to Shortt’s clear clarification that the Aire device shouldn’t be used for self-diagnoses — a doctor’s recommendation is always the safest bet.

“Hopefully, the occasional abuse of hydrogen breath tests seen today can be turned into proper clinical and scientific use in the future,” the 2006 paper concludes. Now, a decade later, perhaps Aire will prove itself as a new and improved device for proper scientific use.

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