Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have created a device called an iTube and a corresponding smart phone app to help field-test food for the presence of allergens. According to Science Today, the iTube is small and lightweight. It connects to a cell phone camera and, in combination with the app, runs a test with the same high level of sensitivity as a lab test.

A team of engineers at the  UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science developed the device, which addresses the growing public health concern over food allergies.  As many as 8 percent of young children and 2 percent of adults have potentially life-threatening allergies to common food ingredients like nuts, milk and eggs.  Even when processed foods are vigorously labeled, cross contamination can occur.

Common detection systems are bulky and complex, whereas the iTube fits neatly into a pocket or purse.  It weighs in at under 2 ounces, said research team leader Aydogan Ozcan, and administers a lab test called a colorimetric assay.

The procedure takes around 20 minutes and in it, a sample of the food in question is ground up and placed in a test tube with hot water.  A series of liquids are added and the sample is allowed to sit for 20 minutes before analysis.

Science Today said, "The kit digitally converts raw images from the cell-phone camera into concentration measurements detected in the food samples. And beyond just a 'yes' or 'no' answer as to whether allergens are present, the test can also quantify how much of an allergen is in a sample, in parts per million."

The system currently tests for the most common food allergens, including almonds, peanuts, eggs and gluten.  Users can upload their results into a personalized testing archive, which could potentially provide a research database for allergy sufferers around the world.

[image via Shutterstock]