There’s an app for that: mobile food allergen testing device developed

Tuesday, 18 December, 2012

We rely on our smartphones for many things these days - navigation, banking and social networking - so why not for our health? A team of researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has developed a lightweight smartphone attachment that can detect allergens in food samples.

While consumer-protection laws in the US regulate the labelling of ingredients in prepackaged foods, cross-contamination can still occur during processing, manufacturing and transportation, the researchers say.

The only products available to detect allergens in food are complex and require bulky equipment that’s hardly suitable for quick testing at the supermarket or cafe. Weighing just 2 ounces - or 57 grams - the iTube was developed to address these issues.

Aydogan Ozcan, leader of the research team and a UCLA associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, says the attachment analyses a test tube-based allergen-concentration test known as colorimetric assay.

To test for allergens, food samples are initially ground up and mixed in a test tube with hot water and an extraction solvent, then allowed to set for several minutes. The prepared sample is then 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 for allergen concentration through the iTube platform, using the phone’s camera and a smart application running on the phone.

The kit digitally converts raw images from the camera into concentration measurements detected in the food samples. And beyond 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 iTube platform can test allergens such as peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, Ozcan says.

The iTube has been successfully tested using commercially available cookies in a study conducted by the UCLA team. The research was published online in the peer-reviewed Lab on a Chip 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,” Ozcan said.

“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, policy makers and researchers, among others.”

Users will be able to create a personalised testing archive, which would include allergen-testing results tagged with a time and location stamp, which the researchers anticipate could provide additional resources for allergic individuals around the world. According to the research team, a statistical allergy database, coupled with geographic information, could be useful for future food-related policies in restaurants, food production and for consumer protection.

To read the Lab on a Chip journal article, click here.

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