Researchers at UCLA have developed a way for people with food allergies to tell if there are peanuts or other allergens in the food they are about to eat. The device, called an iTube, attaches to a smartphone, and can detect allergens in a sample of the food.

The iTube attachment uses phone’s built-in camera, along with an accompanying app, to run tests that are just as sensitive as allergen tests conducted in a laboratory. It weighs under two ounces and analyzes the food using what’s known as a colorimetric assay. To test for allergens, the food sample is ground up and mixed in a tube with hot water and a special solvent. In under 20 minutes, the food is prepared for testing. It is then measured optically using the cell phone’s camera and a smartphone app developed for this purpose. Beyond just a “yes” or “no” answer, the test also quantifies the presence of an allergen in parts per million.

Food allergies are a growing concern, affecting as many as 8% of children and 2% of adults. While consumer-protection laws require ingredient labels on prepackaged foods, cross-contamination is still a concern, leaving many people with severe allergies worried about a reaction with every bite they eat.

iTube a Smaller, More Convenient Allergen Test

Until now, the only device to detect allergens in foods were bulky, complex machines, making them difficult to use in settings such as restaurants. The iTube was developed to address this issue, according to Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, who led the research team. “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,” Ozcan said. According to Ozcan, the iTube test can detect a variety of common allergens including peanuts, gluten, almonds, hazelnuts, and eggs.

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