New US$40 keychain food allergen detection system could help to save lives

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08 Sep 2017 --- A newly developed US$40 portable allergen-detection system – including a keychain analyzer – could help prevent potentially fatal trips to the emergency room, researchers report in the journal ACS Nano. The system is called integrated exogenous antigen testing, or iEAT.

The invention could make restaurant outings much more bearable for kids and adults for food allergies, with the trips currently described by the American Chemical Society press release as potentially a “fraught experience.” This is because even when care is taken, freshly prepared or packaged meals can accidentally become cross-contaminated with an offending food and trigger a reaction.

Serious medical issues brought on by food allergies are not just a problem in the US. “The incidence is rising worldwide,” study leader Hakho Lee, Ph.D., tells NutritionInsight.

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. “Avoiding problematic foods is practically difficult, given current reliance on prepared foods and out-of-home meals,” points out the abstract accompanying the researchers’ study.

“Producers are more aware of this problem and doing their best. But still, hidden allergens are hard to control,” explains Lee. “They may come from food additives or cross-contamination. For example, we found gluten in French fries, which is likely from the oil used for frying.”

Conventional methods to detect these hidden triggers require a lot of laboratory equipment or are slow and don't pick up on low concentrations. Lee and colleagues therefore wanted to make a more practical, consumer-friendly option.

Portable system devised
The researchers therefore developed the US$40 portable allergen-detection system called iEAT. It is made up 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 current “gold standard” laboratory test.

Testing on samples of menu items from restaurants showed some allergens in unexpected dishes and beverages – for example, the American Chemical Society press release points out that it found 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.

“We are looking for a commercialization opportunity with a company,” adds Lee when asked about future plans for the system. “The technology was licensed. No definite timetable yet.”

Allergies are no niche concern in the food and beverage industry. In a recent study, investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital in the US found that 3.6 percent of people had a documented food allergy. Sugar intake during pregnancy has been linked to allergic asthma in children, while the cross-reactivity between cypress pollen and peaches/citrus fruits has given allergy sufferers a boost. Meanwhile, animals have been shown to suffer from food allergies too. 

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