Followers 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
The 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.