Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Food allergies are a deadly reality for many people who must be careful about what they eat despite often lacking information on how something was prepared.
In an effort to give assistance to food allergy sufferers, a team of UCLA researchers has developed a lightweight smartphone attachment called the iTube, which is designed to detect allergens in food samples using the phone’s built-in camera.
The UCLA team said the iTube attachment and corresponding app could become a convenient and cheap substitute for the complex and bulky equipment currently available to perform the same tests.
“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, the UCLA team leader and associate professor of electrical engineering. “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.”
According to the team´s report in the journal Lab on a Chip, the device weighs less than two ounces and it analyzes the allergen-concentration in a food product by performing a test known as a colorimetric assay. The team was able to successfully test the iTube using commercially available cookies, which they tested for peanuts and other allergens.
To begin the testing process, food samples are emulsified in a test tube with hot water and an extraction solvent. After several minutes, the sample is mixed with several other reactive liquids, in a process that takes about 20 minutes.
Once the sample is ready, the system uses the phone´s camera to check for allergen concentration. The iTube platform then digitally converts the camera´s raw images into concentration measurements of allergens, as detected in the food samples. The system is able to calculate the quantity of a variety of allergens, including peanuts, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, in a sample on the scale of parts per million.
After testing a food sample for allergens, the results can be tagged with a time and location stamp, and be uploaded directly to iTube servers. This would allow users to create a personalized testing archive that could provide additional resources for allergic individuals, possibly via social networking.
The researchers said they hoped to construct a statistical allergy database that could be used for future studies or even food-related policies on a local, national or global scale. Ultimately, the database could be a useful tool for restaurants, food production and consumers alike, they added.
Affecting about 8 percent of young children and 2 percent of adults, food allergies have been a growing concern in the public forum. Some allergic reactions can cause severe swelling and even death.
Despite some consumer-protection laws that mandate the labeling of ingredients in pre-packaged foods, cross-contamination still occurs during manufacturing and transportation.
Increased public awareness has led to the proliferation of allergen free food products, including those that are egg and gluten-free.