REVIEW – I have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that requires I eat a gluten-free diet or suffer potentially life-threatening illness. Many celiac sufferers react to other foods, especially dairy, so I was intrigued at the opportunity to review FoodMarble, an easy-to-use handheld device that helps people identify foods to which their bodies respond badly. Think gas, bloating, discomfort and diarrhea, though I prefer not to.
What Is It?
FoodMarble connects a smartphone app with a portable breath analyzer called an AIRE to provide real-time data on digestive responses to potentially problematic carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols).
- Height and width: 55 mm
- Depth: 12.5 mm
- Weight: 25g
- Charges using Micro-USB
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Requires Android 4.4 and higher or iPhone 5 and higher
What’s in the box
(Note: I received the full test kit, not just the breath analyzer.)
- AIRE Digestive Breath Tester
- Carrying case
- Charging cord
- AIRE Quick Start Guide
- FODMAP Testing Guide
- Fructose powder
- Inulin powder
- Lactose powder
- Sorbitol powder
Design and Features
You can use the app as a food, sleep, stress, symptom and poop diary. (It will ask you to compare your poop with a sausage. If you compare it with blood sausage, I advise you immediately see a doctor.) Though your own accounts of sleep and stress may be subjective, it would be helpful to review symptoms in light of your perceived stress level and overall health. In addition, you can also receive customer support through the app. The app, as I mentioned, also connects to the AIRE testing device designed to measure your body’s responses to potential food triggers.
When you’re ready to begin testing your responses to the provided FODMAP samples, you click on “Challenges” in the app and indicate which test you’re taking. The app then walks you through every step of the test and provides reminders to retest every 15 minutes for the next three hours. It then compiles your results by category.
FODMAPs are sugars found in wheat, some vegetables and legumes, dairy products, fruit and artificial sweeteners. People with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, commonly known as IBS, struggle with digesting high-FODMAP foods.
Typically a doctor would measure a patient’s response to FODMAPs using a larger hospital-grade device that detects how much hydrogen the body produces after eating potentially problematic food. The more hydrogen, the higher the response. The AIRE is a miniaturized version of that technology—slightly larger, though thinner, than an AirPod case. And instead of waiting for a report from your doctor, results are instantaneous.
Our device came with four packets of powdered FODMAPs designed to be mixed with water. One contained fructose, another lactose, a third inulin (commonly found in wheat products, onions and garlic), and another sorbitol. Users are supposed to eat low-FODMAP foods the previous day and then fast for 12 hours. After brushing their teeth, they conduct a baseline test. Then they drink one of the mixtures and test their breath every 15 minutes for the next three hours while continuing to fast. This requires a total of 15 hours of fasting in addition to monitoring your diet the previous day. It’s a good idea to schedule the tests on low-activity days in case you have a reaction (that gas, bloating, discomfort and diarrhea thing again). It’s also a good idea to wait three to four days between tests to avoid skewing results.
The labels showed no worrisome ingredients for me. But as a longtime celiac veteran, I knew it wasn’t enough for me to know the ingredients themselves were gluten-free. I contacted the company to ensure they were processed on dedicated equipment so I wouldn’t have to worry about cross-contamination. I quickly heard back from the company’s COO in Dublin, Ireland. She said she couldn’t guarantee freedom from cross-contamination, but she offered to walk me through the testing process using regular table foods. I was impressed with the amount of time she was willing to dedicate to helping me, but my goal was to test not just the unit but the kit itself. This meant I had to draft a second-string volunteer, Gadgeteer reviewer Bill “Mr. Headphones” Henderson, who is unaccustomed to dietary limitations of any kind.
Bill did the fructose test first. As expected, the mixture—the equivalent to eating two large apples—was sweet. He was able to drink it without difficulty and had no reaction whatsoever to that FODMAP. He reserved his second test, lactose, for a weekend day when he wasn’t working and could be flexible with his plans. That’s because it has been his long-held theory that he hates most dairy products (ice cream and milk in coffee excluded) because his body reacts to lactose. I expected the mixture to be mildly sweet, but he reported it had no discernible taste and was no more difficult to drink than water. After Bill completed the test, his theory was disproved. He does not react in the least to lactose. He just doesn’t like most dairy products.
Because Bill had no reaction to the previous test, we felt comfortable expediting the next test by conducting it two days later instead of the recommended three to four days. The app recommended we test sorbitol next. Sorbitol is found naturally in some fruits such as apples and blackberries, both of which my picky husband loves. It’s also used as a calorie-free sweetener in some foods. I’m not a fan of sugar substitutes, but recently I accidentally bought some sorbitol-containing fizzy fruit waters. (I thought they were unsweetened till I got them home.) I’ve always suspected I react to sorbitol. I was very surprised to see Bill’s reaction was a 9.8 out of 10. This apparently means his body doesn’t absorb sorbitol well. The sweetener, it turns out, is also used as a laxative, so I feared the next couple of days could be interesting for poor Bill. But by the next morning, his breath showed no residual effects.
Despite no lingering reaction, we thought it was best to wait a few days to test for inulin. Bill never reports issues with products containing wheat, which he is able to eat, but he often complains that garlic gives him bad breath. I wondered if this was the result of poor absorbency. If he reacted to inulin, he would react not only to garlic but also to onions, glutinous bread and other products. Like the lactose mixture, this one also had no taste. For the first hour, Bill showed a negligible response, but things changed toward the end of the test, when his level suddenly jumped to a 10 out of 10. However, despite his high readings on the sorbitol and inulin tests, Bill says he will not stop eating products containing his nemesis FODMAPs.
What I Like
I love this company’s backstory because it’s one of young people caring about other people and then doing something about it. CEO Aonghus Shortt set out to develop a device to help his girlfriend identify foods that would suit her digestive system. But then he saw a greater need to help people around the world, so he and co-founders Lisa Ruttledge (the woman who responded to my emails), Peter Harte and James Brief raised funds and launched their company, receiving thousands of pre-orders before the device’s official release.
I also appreciate the level of customer service I have received, as well as the amount of thought that went into the app. The food tests can easily be completed if you have a functioning brain stem.
Finally, the AIRE is reuseable, so users can continue to monitor their body’s responses to food. I also appreciate its portability. It fits comfortably into a shirt or pants pocket.
What I Would Change
Obviously, as a celiac, I would want to see the FODMAP samples processed on dedicated equipment. That’s not just for the sake of celiacs but for anyone with food sensitivities. Also, many people have undiagnosed sensitivities, so they may react to cross-contamination, which would skew the results.
However, until the company can afford to produce the samples on dedicated equipment, it should provide a disclaimer on the samples and on the website so people can make informed decisions about whether to buy the FODMAP packets.
I applaud the founders of this company for such an ambitious undertaking, which appears to be based on good science. One validation study concluded the AIRE “may offer results comparable to those delivered by the reference benchtop [clinical-use] device. Furthermore, the use of the proposed device via the associated smartphone app could allow for the immediate transmission of results to the clinician, for use in further consultation and guidance.” That said, I would recommend sharing any concerning results you obtain with a gastroenterologist in case they may point to a serious underlying issue.