‘Mobile Lab’ App Detects Allergens in Food

‘Mobile Lab’ App Detects Allergens in Food

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peanuts in shell-Cohdra MorguefileDo you have a serious food allergy and want to know if there’s any culprits in your cookie? Now there’s an app for that.

It will take you 20 minutes to get the answer using a new application developed by UCLA researchers for your smartphone.

The app comes with a device, called the iTube — like a test tube — which allows your phone to scan and test a food item before you eat it.

So far, the lightweight device, which attaches to your cell phone, can detect traces of peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts with the same high level of sensitivity found in a professional laboratory.

Food allergies affect as many as 8 percent of young children and can trigger severe and even life-threatening reactions. And while consumer-protection laws regulate the labeling of ingredients in pre-packaged foods, cross-contaminations can still occur during processing, manufacturing and transportation.

Although several products that detect allergens in foods are currently available, they are complex and require bulky equipment, making them ill-suited for use in public settings, according to the UCLA researchers.

The iTube weighs less than two ounces, and uses the cell phone’s built-in camera, along with an application to run a test that analyzes allergen-concentration in a test tube.

To test for allergens, food samples are initially ground up and mixed in a test tube with hot water and an extraction solvent; this mixture is allowed to set for several minutes. Then, following a step-by-step procedure, the prepared sample is mixed with a series of other reactive testing liquids. The entire preparation takes roughly 20 minutes. When the sample is ready, it is measured optically with the camera in your phone.

Phone device iTube-UCLAresearchersBeyond just a “yes” or “no” answer as to whether allergens are present, the test can also quantify how much of an allergen is in a sample, in parts per million.

The UCLA team’s research was recently published online in the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip and will be featured in a forthcoming print issue of the journal.

“We envision that this cell phone–based allergen testing platform could be very valuable, especially for parents, as well as for schools, restaurants and other public settings,” said Aydogan Ozcan, leader of the research team and a UCLA associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering. “Once successfully deployed in these settings, the big amount of data — as a function of both location and time — that this platform will continuously generate would indeed be priceless for consumers, food manufacturers, policymakers and researchers, among others.”

Allergen-testing results of various food products, tagged with a time and location stamp, can be uploaded directly from cell phones to iTube servers to create a personalized testing archive, which could provide additional resources for allergic individuals around the world. A statistical allergy database, coupled with geographic information, could be useful for future food-related policies — for example in restaurants, food production and for consumer protection, the researchers said.

iTube could be available commercially in about 18 months, Ozcan told a writer at the LA Weekly, who quipped, “Now if only they could come up with an EpiPen app.” No word yet on what the device would cost.

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