Testing for Food Allergies – From a Smartphone

in Food Allergy
Published: February 9, 2013

Ozcan deviceWouldn’t it be great if there were a way to verify whether a packaged food or takeout meal was truly safe to eat? Or to know whether a “may contain” label means a food product “does contain” your allergen?

That is exactly what a new device developed by a team of researchers and engineers at UCLA led by Professor Aydogan Ozcan, appears to be capable of doing. Dubbed the iTube, it works by harnessing the power of a smartphone to test food for peanut allergens in about 20 minutes. It weighs less than one-tenth of a pound and can fit in a pocket.

“People will be able to quantify the amount of allergen and have the ability to upload their results to their personal site or to a public server,” Ozcan, an associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, told NBC News.

Here’s how it works: first the iTube is attached to an Android smartphone. Then a small amount of a food, like a cookie, is ground up and put in an attached mini-test tube with hot water and a special solvent. After letting the mixture sit for a few minutes, other liquids are added that will react to the presence of the allergen. A second, empty tube has an LED light shine through it as well as the tube containing the sample.

The cell phone’s camera then takes a picture of the mixture and light through special lenses built into the iTube itself. An accompanying application analyzes the photo and displays how much of the allergen was detected. It’s highly accurate, able to test down to one part per million (ppm) of peanut.

While peanut allergen was used to develop the prototype, Ozcan is confident his team will be able to adapt for other allergens and gluten. He expects the device could become available within a few years.

Ozcan and his team have developed other devices, which also make use of the power and widespread availability of mobile devices, including a microscope and a blood-count analyzer.

Editor’s Note: See more on this device in the Spring 2013 edition of the magazine.