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Why We Need Emojis for Food Allergies

Emoji tend to be associated with the more positive things in our lives: shopping, fun sassy expressions, dinners out. But emoji also make it easier to communicate for many people—especially in Asian countries, where complex written characters have had difficulty transitioning to tiny onscreen phone keyboards. And those cute food icons, which have been expanded with the release of Unicode 8 and may appear with iOS 9, have some heavy lifting to do—especially with a proposal, sent to the Unicode Consortium by a Google engineer, that could one day see food allergies represented in emoji form.

You would think that the wealth of existing food-related emojis would mostly cover this, but a chart of "weak alternatives" in the proposal shows just how inadequate these are. The icon that comes closest to representing "milk," for example, is a baby bottle. And as the several "tiers" in the proposal—according to the strength of existing alternatives—indicate, most common foods in our diets aren't always to easy to represent visually.

Adding these emoji could change the way we communicate about this increasingly widespread health problem. With the climbing rate of food allergies recently, a common statement now used around foo, both packaged and in restaurants states, the many common allergens that may unexpectedly appear in foods. This is done sometimes as a courtesy to the customer and sometimes as a legal requirement, but it's both imprecise and verbose. Allergens may be referred to by different names, and the various standards around mentioning the presence of their traces—for example, if they were present in the factory that the food product was made in—can be confusing to act upon for those with food allergies and sensitivities.

Using standardized iconography to help communicate these issues may help clear things up for the food-intolerant. This population, which so often feel they have to apologize for being picky with food and holding up orders at restaurants, can now talk about their problem as a normalized part of life.

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