Food Allergies & Intolerance

A Keychain Detector for Food Allergens

Researchers have developed a keychain food allergy detector that can let the owner know whether the food is bad for him or her.

The device, which is part of a new portable allergen-detector system, would also detect any cross-contamination in foods that would otherwise be safe.

The development, by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, was reported in the journal ACS Nano.

Most people with food allergies manage their condition by avoiding the specific nuts, fish, eggs or other products that cause a reaction, which can range from a mild rash to life-threatening anaphylaxis. But avoidance isn’t always possible because food can be mislabeled or cross-contaminated. Conventional methods to detect these hidden triggers either require bulky laboratory equipment, or are slow and don’t pick up on low concentrations. But the new device is more consumer-friendly.

The researchers developed a $40 portable allergen-detection system called integrated exogenous antigen testing, or iEAT. It consists of a handheld device to extract allergens from food and an electronic keychain reader for sensing allergens that wirelessly communicates the results to a smartphone. In less than 10 minutes, the prototype could detect five allergens, one each from wheat, peanuts, hazelnuts, milk and egg whites, at levels even lower than the gold standard laboratory evaluation.

Testing on samples of menu items from restaurants showed some allergens in unexpected dishes and beverages — for example, gluten in salad and an egg protein in beer. Although the prototype was designed to sense five allergens, the researchers say the device could be expanded to test for additional compounds, including other allergens and non-food contaminants such as pesticides.

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