Two smartphone peripherals to check food before you dig in

By: Jonah Comstock | Dec 18, 2012        

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iTube food allergen detectorFollowers of mHealth should have learned by now not to be surprised by what health function your smartphone will serve next. Still and all, two new technologies are presenting a somewhat novel use case: scanning your food before you eat it. A recent proof-of-concept from UCLA turns your smartphone into a mobile lab that can test your food for a number of allergens, while a new commercial product from Russian startup Lapka tests for nitrates in produce, a hallmark of whether produce is truly organic.

UCLA’s allergen-sensing iTube

Researchers at UCLA have developed a device that uses the iPhone camera to analyze food samples, searching them for food allergens. In about 20 minutes, the device can return a result about whether certain food allergens are in a sample, and how much of the allergen exists. It can currently identify peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten and hazelnuts, and the app displays the concentration in parts per million.

About 4 to 6 percent of all US children under 18 have food allergies, according to the CDC, but that number appears to be rising. From 1997 to 2007 the number of children with food allergies went up 18 percent. People with food allergies get accustomed to reading ingredient lists and avoiding foods they can’t eat. For those with severe allergies, however, even cross contamination, like cooking something in the same pan that was used to cook peanuts, can be deadly.

The team calls the device the iTube, and recently tested it on commercially-available cookies, publishing their results in the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip. The iTube is a platform for conducting existing chemical tests for allergens called a colorametric assay, so its accuracy is already well-established.

At the moment, the test procedure is a little bit complicated for a commercial application. The food has to be ground up, mixed with hot water and extraction solvent, and then mixed with other liquids right before testing. The process takes about 20 minutes. But the device is still smaller and faster than anything on the market currently, according to lead researcher Aydogan Ozcan. Ozcan is the co-founder of Holomic, formerly known as Microskia, a company that worked on a low-cost microscope that leverages a smartphone.

“It’s quick,” he said. “You grind it for a couple of minutes, maybe using your spoon as a mechanical instrument. And then you just wait for the tube to react to possible allergens in the food.”

Lapka’s organicity sensor

Lapka organicity sensorThe other food-tester in the news is Lapka’s organicity sensor, part of a suite of attractively designed sensor peripherals for the iPhone. Of the five sensors, only one is related to food – the others are about the immediate environment. They measure radiation, temperature and humidity, and electromagnetic fields. The corresponding app displays numerical values, rates each category as acceptable or unacceptable, and displays the readings in an abstract way: animated particles move slowly over cool-colored backgrounds when readings are positive, quickly over warmer colors when they’re negative.

The various environmental factors Lapka measures are causes of concern for some, although in terms of scientific evidence, there’s not a broad consensus, for instance, on whether organic food is more healthy than non-organic food, or whether the electromagnetic fields produced by cellphones and microwaves are harmful. CEO Vadik Marmeladov told MobiHealthNews that the company doesn’t take sides on those debates. They just provide sensors and ratings based on government-supplied guidelines for acceptable exposures.

The organicity sensor is a stainless steel probe the user sticks into a piece of fruit or a vegetable. The device, plugged into the iPhone via the headphone jack, reads electrical conductivity, which, according to Lapka’s website “correlates to the relative concentration of nitrate ions left behind from nitrogen-based fertilizers.” It returns a reading of nitrate parts per million. The app is programmed with presets for common fruits and vegetables. Marmeladov says that though organicity sensors are novel in the US, they’re fairly common in China, India, and Russia already.

Future applications for the data

Beyond the direct use case, both devices leverage the social potential of the smartphone to create “big data” maps of the readings collected. Ozcan says the iTube app already stores the readings it takes, tracking your location as well. He envisions that people could look up a restaurant, for instance, and see if anyone else had found unexpected allergens in the food there.

“That’s the part where integration with the cellphone could really make more sense,” Ozcan said. “The cellphone brings you a fantastic connectivity that brings these individual tests to a database. I think it’s quite important to have access in the long run to those kind of spatiotemporal statistical maps.”

Similarly, Lapka lets you share your readings with others by email or store them in a journal. In the spring, Marmeladov told MobiHealthNews, the app will be updated to include a map to which users can share their ratings, leading to a similar kind of social tracking.

MobiHealthNews has written about a number of health apps that aim to help people eat better. Fooducate allows users to scan barcodes at the grocery store and generates a letter grade for nutrition. ScanAvert functions similarly, but rather than giving a general health score it tells you whether a food is safe for you specifically – based on food allergies, drug interactions, or dietary restrictions. The Eatery app from Massive Health uses crowdsourcing, allowing users to photograph their food and have it rated on a scale of “Fit to Fat” by the online community of users. If the hardware from sensors like iTube and Lapka could tie into this sort of software, it could be a real step forward for food evaluation apps.

Lapka is already available at the company’s website at a cost of $220. As for the iTube, Ozcan says Holomic is considering the options for commercializing the product. If they do, he estimated it could launch within 18 months.