We Can Now Detect Food Allergens on Smart Phones

Peanuts | Photo: Steven River/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Well, that certainly didn't take long.

Only a few days ago, the news spread regarding the fact that you can't really trust food labels as much as you'd think. The problem was that of cross-contamination, wherein items like tree nuts were being stored and packaged in the same facilities as other items, but the companies didn't warn about the possibility of such an allergen being present. This, as you could imagine, was not the best news for those who have very specific diets based on their allergies. My post ended with a plea for consumers to obtain more knowledge regarding where their food comes from: If one can ask the farmer or business owner directly about how their food is packaged and shipped, one can become more aware of risks of an allergic reaction. But here's the thing about technology: It's awesome.

Last week it was announced that UCLA professors have developed a system that will allow smart phones users to detect allergens on their own.

Dubbed the iTube, the device attaches to your smart phone's camera in order to scan food samples. Among the allergens it tests for are peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, some of the most abundant of known allergens that are hidden away in more products than you'd think. This means that if a person with a peanut allergy wasn't entirely sure if, say, a certain candy bar had peanut parts in it, they could gather up a sample, scan it with the iTube attachment, see the peanut concentration (the device measures in parts-per-million) and decide whether or not to chow down.

This has a ways to go in the not-so-time-consuming arena:

Still, the process isn't so simple: to test for allergens, you'll need to grind up and mix samples with hot water and a solvent in a tiny test tube. Then, you'll need to mix the sample with a series of reactive testing liquids, which takes about 20 minutes. When the sample is ready, it is measured optically for allergen concentration through the iTube platform, using your mobile phone's camera and iTube app.

But it's certainly a step in the right direction. (Mostly for those who can touch, just not eat, the allergens, we suppose.) This is version 1.0, after all. Cut that response time to 5 minutes, and suddenly we're talking about an invention that has a chance to change the lives of those dealing with dreaded food allergies. After the aforementioned food label scare from last week, this is a much-needed check in the "good news" side of the ledger.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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