AI is bad at identifying which foods contain gluten

AI is bad at identifying which foods contain gluten

Like many people with food allergies or celiac, I use Google and Amazon to research which foods are safe for me to eat on a near-daily basis. Both companies have leaned heavily into using AI in their search results to summarize data, with varying results. I’m not here to get into the ethical debate around AI, or even the possible long-term threat to humanity. The problem I’d like to focus on is, of course (see title of this site), food-related.

You see, I was diagnosed celiac over 15 years ago now, and I also love researching foods and reading food history books. All that’s to say that I have a pretty good grasp of the general ingredients in a large variety of foods. This isn’t usually the case for the newly diagnosed! I didn’t even know what gluten was before I was diagnosed 15 years ago.

This is where my problem with AI in its current state comes in. It’s often wrong when identifying food allergies in packaged foods.

False negative results for gluten are really dangerous for the newly diagnosed. If I didn’t already have an understanding of the ingredients in a specific food, I might just go ahead and believe the AI results!

AI allergens

Floating brain from Milad Fakurian

Inaccurate results are highly likely when ingredients vary across different countries for a packaged product. This was a problem I noticed for both Kewpie mayo and Maggi seasoning sauce, for instance. Or for products like Lao Gan Ma whose company offers a large variety of different sauces with very similar names. When I was researching for those articles, I originally got AI-generated results that both products were gluten free, with no caveats, which isn’t true. Since my articles have been published, the AI results (for me at least!) have been updated to include my research, which is a much more specific.

On the false positive side: I often search Amazon reviews for customers or the company’s reporting on the full lists of ingredients for esoteric products. Now that AI has gotten involved in those results, it’s often reporting that wheat allergens are present in a product that is clearly gluten free. Perhaps this is a really temporary bug because the feature is so recent, but still a bit annoying.

AI allergens

Circuit board from Michael Dziedzic

Because AI is using all the content on the internet to generate their results, it’s also going to factor in the uninformed opinions of random people that don’t actually know what gluten is. I’ve seen so many sites and Amazon reviews that have blatantly false information about what contains gluten, so it makes sense that AI’s results would be at least partially inaccurate.

Luckily, AI is improving quickly and this hopefully won’t be a serious issue for too much longer, but it’s worth being very cautious with the results you receive in regards to allergens in food. Always read the label of the actual product package!

* Title image courtesy of Alina Grubnyak.

- Further Reading -