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Americas: Detecting food allergens on-the-go

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Researchers have developed a portable allergen-detection system, including a keychain analyzer, for consumers on the go, reports 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.

However, avoidance is not 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 do not pick up on low concentrations.

Ralph Weissleder, Hakho Lee and colleagues wanted to make a more practical, consumer-friendly option.

The researchers developed a US$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 assay.

Testing on samples of menu items from restaurants showed some allergens in unexpected dishes and beverages, such as 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.