Could an electronic device tell us what food would make us ill?

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Paul Anderson

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Paul Anderson  asked the Naked Scientists:

Hi Chris and team,

In every country the locals build up a certain amount of immunity to local bugs, etc, but as a foreigner, if I am not careful I am likely to end up with the local version of Delhi belly and spend my time visiting the taigh beag frequently.

It would be so wonderful if someone could invent a small gadget which one could wear on one's wrist, like a watch, but which contained a chip loaded with one's medical state, especially what was one's immunity. One could then move one's wrist close to the plate of goats eyes or whatever the local dish was, and the gadget would either beep or flash or just give you a reading to say that one should somehow avoid eating the local delicacy.

It's just an idea that came to me this morning and I suppose everyone will say it is just science fiction, but it would certainly be a handy gadget. The police have breathalysers, so it is not such a stupid idea.
I used to think I had a caste iron stomach and could eat anything, but I feel sure that after a few bad experiences overseas, I tend to approach everything a lot more gingerly now, which is a pity because it is no fun just eating McDonald's in every country or foreign situation I am in, lest I catch something. Also, I don't want the locals thinking I am insulting them by not eating their locally prepared food.


What do you think?


Offline Karsten

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I have a tape at work that I occasionally show my students. It is called "The Science of Star Wars" and is about all he stuff that was invented by those who watched Star Wars when they were younger and are now engineers. I remember Dr. Spock having a device like this. Will there be one day a show called "The Science of Star Trek"?

But I hear you. I had food poisoning once. NOT FUN! I cannot remember clearly, but that night I may have pondered regretfully that I do not have such a device.

The device would have to be tuned to each person's digestive system. The locals can eat their food without problems. It is the foreigners who suffer easily. Unless we are talking about really dangerous germs.

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Offline RD

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An electronic nose may tell you if the sheep's eyes are "off", as may your own nose.


Offline lancenti

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Essentially, I think what the device will have to do is two things:

1. Identify the Food, then
2. Tell you if you'll be fine eating it

Now with the electronic nose as proposed by RD, it might well be able to detect the chemical components of the aroma but it might be hard to determine exactly what kind of food it is. As we all know we like to use herbs and sauces to enhance the flavour of our food which may result in an unfortunate identification of Chicken Briyani as a giant pile of herbs. If I had a good amount of alcohol to douse the dish in (i.e. extremely drunken chicken) I'm pretty sure I could fool a breathalyser.

If we're just to consider allergies, it might also be difficult. Being allergic to Coconuts may or may not be an issue of being allergic to just one chemical component - it might be everything in combination. Also, not all the chemical components may vaporize, so isolating the chemicals from the aroma may not be sufficient.

However, if we are simply to detect the smell of rotten food (i.e. the distinctive smell of rotten oysters) it may be much easier, but I don't think that's the whole point of the question.

Perhaps a more feasible device would be one that keeps track of what dishes are available, it's main components, any local diseases associated with the components and your allergies. Using some database analysis, it should be able to tell you if it is at least reasonably safe unless it really is poisoned.

Everything starts as Science Fiction. Maybe someday we'll have this kind of thing floating around. =)


Offline RD

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...simply to detect the smell of rotten food

That was my suggestion:
to electronically detect the smell produced by the bacteria in the sheep's eyeballs which are past their "best before" date.

There is current technology called antibody microarrays which I think could be used to simultaneously test a sample for multiple allergens.
« Last Edit: 15/01/2009 17:04:20 by RD »