Why you should care

Because cramps, diarrhea and intense bloating can really ruin a party.  

Shireen Yates was sick of being “that girl” whenever she went out to dinner with friends. You know the type: the friend who scrutinizes the specials, asks the waiter a million questions and tries to order off menu. It’s not because Yates is a picky eater; she has a gluten allergy, one that causes her physical pain whenever she consumes it.

Many restaurants now offer gluten-free items, but it’s an imperfect solution. “I felt that I was constantly getting ‘glutened’ when eating out, even when ordering off of gluten-free menus,” Yates told OZY. But she is not the type of woman to sit at home and fume. Instead she combined her talents in marketing — she’s worked as a strategist for YouTube and Google — with her growing interest in entrepreneurship. How could she use these skills to solve her problem?

Yates conceptualized the idea of a portable gluten tester — something that people can carry in handbags and take to parties — as she worked on her MBA at MIT. She theorized that being able to carry a tester would make life a lot easier for the 1 in every 133 people who have gluten allergies. We’re talking cramps, diarrhea and intense bloating. Yowza.

It resembles an oversized saltshaker crossed with a Walkman.

But how to make this a reality? Yates teamed up with Scott Sundvor, an MIT engineering graduate, to form 6SensorLabs and they spent two years researching, designing and looking at existing technology. The result was the Canary (working name), a sleek-looking portable device for the gluten girl (or guy) on the go. So far there’s no launch date confirmed, but Yates says that there is a one-time purchase for the sensor, which they are planning to sell for less than $200. The Canary resembles an oversized saltshaker crossed with a Walkman. The sleek gray-and-silver design features a removable pod that slots into the main body, where all the high-tech sensor wizardry takes place.

“You take a sample of food you want to test, place the sample into a pod and then place the pod into a sensor,” Yates said. The results come through in minutes. The sensor detects the food proteins in the sample and will greenlight you if it’s gluten-free. Yates is also developing an app that logs your results, and plans to create a map of gluten-free items in restaurants across the globe using the data that’s collected.

Pro: fabulous. Con: Taking out a gluten sensor at a party to check on the corn chips is kind of a buzzkill.

It’s a real issue for April Peveteaux, author of Gluten Is My Bitch. She’s intrigued by the possibilities, but can’t see herself using it. “It kind of looks like a medical device, and quite frankly I’m stigmatized enough when I open my mouth and admit I’m one of those gluten-free types,” she said. The only time she could envision using the device would be if she suspected that somebody’s gluten-free offerings might not actually be gluten-free.

Yates knows that some people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about their diet, and discretion is key to her product; it has no obvious markings and the silver color is more Apple-like than hospital chic. She hopes the Canary will get to the market soon, and she wants to make it as affordable as possible.

It won’t solve all problems for the gluten-sensitive, but here’s hoping that exposing hidden gluten in products will shame restaurants into being more scrupulous in the kitchen. Now if only we could get a gluten-free pizza that doesn’t taste like cardboard …

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