Does That Food Contain Allergens? Ask Your Cell Phone

Most people with food allergies already know it's essential to read food labels and be vigilant about avoiding certain allergens. Yet it's not always possible to prevent cross-contamination that occurs during food manufacturing or preparation, so your efforts may not be enough to keep you safe.

This dilemma has led a team of UCLA scientists to develop iTube, a device that attaches to a cell phone and uses its camera to analyze a sample of food and determine if it contains any traces of allergens. Food allergies affect 8 percent of young children (6 million) and 2 percent of adults.

"Although several other 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," explains Aydogan Ozcan, PhD, professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at UCLA and co-founder of Holomic LLC, a start-up company that has licensed iTube, along with some other biomedical technologies created by Ozcan's research lab at UCLA.

How iTube Works
The iTube device tackles food allergies by providing a portable way to test food for the presence of food allergens before you take a bite. The testing is a two-step process. First, you must prepare a sample of the food in question. "Initially food samples are ground up and mixed with hot water and an extraction solvent in a test tube, which is then allowed to set for several minutes," Ozcan says. "Next, the prepared sample is mixed following a step-by-step procedure with a series of other reactive testing liquids."

This preparation takes about 20 minutes, not all of which requires the attention of the user since most of it is actually incubation time. When the sample is ready, the second step utilizes the cell phone's camera along with a special smart application. These work together to measure any allergen amounts in the food.

Detecting Food Allergens
"The kit digitally converts raw images from the cellphone camera into concentration measurements detected in 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 researcher says.

If this sounds complicated, Ozcan argues for the portability and ease of use of the device. "Anyone who can operate a smartphone should be able to follow these testing steps." He also stresses that a small investment of time- about 20 minutes to test the food and get the results--could end up bringing you life-saving benefits. The iTube platform can test for a variety of common allergens, including peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts.

Although iTube is not yet available to the general public, Ozcan says he hopes to bring it to the market within the next few years. "We envision that this cell phone-based technology could be very valuable, especially for parents, as well as for schools, restaurants, and other public settings." He says that beyond providing information for consumers, the findings iTube gathers, including location, date, and time, will be uploaded to iTube servers and be made available to people with food allergies located all around the world.

It's not only individuals who can benefit from the iTube data. "Such a statistical allergy database, coupled with geographic and time-stamp information, could also be useful for future food-related policies-for example, in restaurants, in food production, and for consumer protection," Ozcan says.

Aydogan Ozcan, PhD, reviewed this article.

Holomic. "Welcome to Holomic LLC." Nd. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.

"Technical Innovation: A personalized food allergen testing platform on a cellphone." Lab on a Chip Online, 29 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Ozcan, Aydogan. Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering at UCLA; co-founder of Holomic LLC. Email interview 15 Jan. 2013.

Science Daily. "Got Food Allergies? You Can Now Test Your Meal On the Spot Using a Cell Phone." 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.