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Food Allergen: Catch Food Allergens with Key Chain Detector

For kids and adults with food allergies, a restaurant outing can be an anxious experience. Even when care is taken, freshly prepared or packaged meals can unintentionally become cross-contaminated with an offending food and activate a reaction. Now, researchers report in the journal ACS Nano the development of a new portable food allergen detection system. Food allergen detection systems that include keychain analyzer that could help avert trips to the emergency room.

What is a food allergy?

Food allergy is an abnormal reaction to a food activated by your body’s immune system.

In adults, the foods that most often activate allergic reactions include fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts, such as walnuts. Problematic foods for children can include eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and wheat.

The allergic reaction may be minor. In rare circumstances it can cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. Symptoms of food allergy include:

  • Itching or swelling in your mouth
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain
  • Hives or eczema
  • Tightening of the throat and trouble breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure

Your health care provider may use detailed history, elimination diet, and skin and blood tests to detect a food allergy.

You can only avert the symptoms of food allergy by avoiding the food. After you and your health care provider have recognized the food you're sensitive with, eliminate them from your diet.

Why is key chain food allergen detector really helpful?

A portable food allergen detection system with a keychain analyzer could greatly help people with food allergies test their meals.

Most people with food allergies copes their condition by avoiding the specific nuts, fish, eggs or other products that cause a reaction. Consuming food products that have food allergen can range from a mild rash to life-threatening anaphylaxis. But avoidance isn’t always promising because food can be mislabeled or cross-contaminated. Conformist methods to detect these hidden triggers either require bulky laboratory equipment, or don’t pick up on low concentrations. Ralph Weissleder, Hakho Lee and colleagues wanted to create a more practical, consumer-friendly option.

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

Using iEAT to test on samples of menu items from restaurants showed some food allergen in unexpected dishes and beverages. Example of food allergens that are detected are gluten in salad and an egg protein in beer. Though the prototype was intended to sense five allergens, the researchers say the device could be expanded to test for additional compounds. The prototype can be expanded by containing other allergens and non-food contaminants such as pesticides.

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