Worried about food allergens? There's an app for that


Building on their work on a mobile phone – or cell phone – app to detect bacteria, US scientists have now adapted the technology to detect allergens in foods.

The device, developed by Aydogan Ozcan and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a compact and lightweight attachment for a mobile phone’s camera unit, which is used to image tubes containing food samples illuminated by light emitting diodes. ‘If there is an allergen in the sample, the transmitted light intensity changes,’ says Ozcan. ‘By quantifying the transmitted light intensity using a smart application on the phone, we can quantify the amount of allergen in the sample in parts per million.’ 

The iTube platform uses colorimetric assays and a smartphone to reveal the presence of allergens in food samples

The iTube platform uses colorimetric assays and a smartphone to reveal the presence of allergens in food samples

Food allergies affect 8% of young children and 2% of adults, says Ozcan, and allergic reactions can be severe and even life-threatening. While consumer protection laws regulate ingredient labelling on pre-packaged foods, there may still be cross-contaminations that occur throughout the processing, manufacture and transportation of food, he explains. While several products that detect allergens are available, they are complex and require bulky equipment, making them unsuitable for use in public settings. ‘Our platform is mobile, runs on cell phones, and is also quite compact and cost-effective,’ says Ozcan.

‘We envision that this cell phone-based allergen testing platform could be very valuable for parents, schools, restaurants and other public settings,’ says Ozcan. ‘Once successfully deployed in these settings, the large amount of data, as a function of both location and time that this platform will continuously generate, would be priceless for consumers, food manufacturers, policy makers and researchers.’

He adds that the test results of various food products, tagged with a time and location stamp, could be uploaded to iTube servers to create a personalised testing archive, which could provide additional resources for individuals with allergies around the world. A statistical allergy database, coupled with geographic information, could be useful for future food-related policies, for example in restaurants, food production and for consumer protection, he says.

‘The study takes advantage of cell phones to perform the detection step of a food allergen test kit,’ says Samuel Sia of the biomedical engineering department at Columbia University, US. ‘This is an encouraging step towards making food allergen testing more accessible, although automation of the food allergy testing procedure itself (before the detection step) would also be very beneficial.’


Related Content

Science at your fingertips

27 February 2014 Premium contentFeature

news image

Will the rise of smartphones revolutionise chemistry? Sarah Houlton finds out

Chemistry World podcast - February 2013

4 February 2013 Podcast | Monthly

news image

Graham Richards discusses crowdsourcing, Eric Wolff talks about ice cores and the team cover the latest chemical news

Most Read

Higher levels of some metals in e-cigarette smoke

8 September 2014 Research

news image

Scientists call for regulators to help clear smoke and mirrors surrounding vaping safety

Isotope effect produces new type of chemical bond

22 October 2014 Research

news image

Evidence emerges for vibrational bond first proposed 30 years ago

Most Commented

Indian U-turn on diabetes drug ban

16 August 2013 News and Analysis

news image

Suspension of cheap and popular medicine reversed but will now come with new safety warnings

DNA waves don't wash

10 July 2013 The Crucible

news image

Philip Ball asks why a spectacular claim seems to have been overlooked. Sometimes science doesn’t work the way it’s suppo...