Researchers Develop Portable Food Allergen-Detection System

A portable allergen-detection system with a keychain analyzer
A portable allergen-detection system with a keychain analyzer

A point-of-care food allergy testing system the size of a keychain has been developed by researchers from Harvard Medical School.

The device, called integrated exogenous antigen testing (or iEAT), works in tandem with an extraction kit and a smartphone app. The disposable kit is programmed to identify five major protein antigens as extraction targets: gliadin (wheat), Ara h1 (peanut), Cor a1 (hazelnut), casein (milk), and ovalbumin (egg white). These five were chosen for prototype testing, though the researchers say that many other potential antigens can be be readily incorporated into the detection list (such as shrimp, lobster, walnuts, pecans etc.). iEAT was developed to “empower consumers”, but that the system can also be used by food industries and regulators.

The system was tested by researchers on the packaged consumer food products of bread, milk and cereal, with a 1g sample taken of each food type. The extracts were assayed for gliadin, Ara h1 (peanut), Cor a1 (hazelnut), casein (milk), and ovalbumin (egg white). Results showed that the device could detect the five allergens at levels even lower than the gold standard laboratory assay. 

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Generally, the products tested did not contain the listed allergen, however most products did contain at least one unspecified antigen, for instance, “brands of nut-free cookies contained gluten, whereas a gluten-free brand contained a peanut allergen,” the authors write. Foods at restaurants (Boston area) were also examined with some unexpected results. Gluten was found in salad, while ovalbumin and casein was found in beer. Their presence is likely due to salad dressing and food additives, respectively.

The device would cost around $40 with assay costs of under $4 dollars per antigen; it takes the device less than 10 minutes to detect antigens. "With scale-up and the ability to produce lyophilized kits, we expect these costs would decrease considerably," say the researchers. "We envision that the portable iEAT technology will allow for more rigorous and evidence-based analysis of food products, enhance consumer protection, reduce accidental allergy exposure, and identify problems in our food supply chain." 

For more information visit ACS.org.