Smartphone app detects food allergens like peanuts

Added by on December 13, 2012

The iTube platform, which utilizes colorimetric assays and a smart phone-based digital reader. Right: A screen capture of the iTube App.

The iTube platform, which utilizes colorimetric assays and a smart phone-based digital reader. Right: A screen capture of the iTube App.

Researchers at the UCLA have created a smartphone app that detects food allergens in less than 20 minutes.

In the US approximately 2% of adults and 8% of children have food allergies where severe allergic reactions can be life-threatening.

“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.

The smartphone app works with a device researchers created, called the iTube which uses a smart phone’s built in camera to detect concentrations of allergens in a sample of food. The app not only indicates whether a food sample contains an allergen, it also reports the concentration of allergens, measured in parts per million. The measure of concentration may be helpful for people that are extremely allergic to allergens like peanuts and other nuts – approximately 0.6 to 1.3 percent of a population is sensitive to peanuts.

Although food labeling in the US, Canada, and many other countries is regulated so that labels on prepackaged foods indicate to consumers even trace amounts of allergens, cross-contamination can occur during processing and handling. The US reported over 400 food allergen recalls since March 2009.

The iTube and accompanying smartphone app make it possible to test for food allergens in public settings like restaurants and school cafeterias.

Test results of food products are tagged by the app with the test’s time and location which can be used by other allergic people around the world as an additional resource for coping and managing food allergies.

Ozcan added the data that the smart phone app makes available would be, “…priceless for consumers, food manufacturers, policymakers and researchers, among others.”

The iTube weighs less than two ounces and is able to detect traces amounts of peanuts, hazelnuts, gluten eggs, and almonds by analyzing a photo of a sample of food. The research team used the device to test commercially available cookies.

The researchers published details about the iTube and accompanying smartphone app in the peer reviewed journal, ” Lab on a Chip”.

The Ozcan BioPhotonics Lab is funded by the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award and the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.