Food Allergy Fix on a Keychain?

Food allergies are on the upswing.  And anyone who suffers from (or loves someone) with a severe food allergy knows the minefield that restaurant food can be. On a wing and a prayer, individuals often ask kitchen staff about the ingredients in these meals, placing incredible amounts of trust in what they hope will be an accurate answer.

People with allergies also have to trust that restaurant workers won’t cross-contaminate their meals by handling different (and potentially triggering) ingredients and tools in the kitchen. This approach generally leaves those with allergies with little choice but to completely avoid any foods that have the chance of containing an allergen, either in the natural ingredients, or because of contact with other foods containing allergens during preparation in a restaurant kitchen.  

Thankfully, there may soon be another solution. 

Food researchers at Harvard Medical School, funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, have just developed a forty dollar device that fits on a key chain and can accurately test for allergens, like gluten or nuts, in a restaurant meal in less than 10 minutes. The system, called integrated exogenous antigen testing (iEAT), is designed to give those who suffer from food allergies a rapid, accurate device that allows them to personally test foods in less than 10 minutes.

The device consists of three components. A small plastic test tube is used to dissolve a small sample of the food being tested and to add the magnetic beads that capture the food allergen of interest, such as gluten. A bit of that solution is then dropped onto electrode strips on a small module that is then inserted into the electronic keychain reader. The keychain reader has a small display that indicates whether the allergen is present, and if so, in what concentration.

Testing showed that measurements of the concentration of the allergen is extremely accurate. For example, even though Federal standards say that a food is considered gluten free if it has a concentration of less than 20 mg per kg of gluten, everyone’s sensitivity is different, and many people would have a reaction at much lower gluten concentrations. Extensive testing of iEAT revealed that the system could detect levels of gluten that were 200 times lower than the Federal standard.

Beyond obtaining the information they need in about 10 minutes using iEAT, a novel addition to the system was the development of a cell phone app, which offers the possibility of addressing food allergies at the community level. Using the app, users can compile and store the data they collect as they test different foods for various allergens at different restaurants and even in packaged foods. The app is set up to share this information online with both time and location stamps indicating when, where, and in what food or dish an allergen reading was taken. With the app, people will eventually have a personal record of levels that trigger a reaction. Others with the app will be able to find restaurants with foods they like to eat that consistently have no or low levels that are below the individual’s triggering concentration.

“We were surprised at the amount of interest this device has generated. We have been asked if we can adapt iEAT to test for other substances such as MSG,” said Hakho Lee, co-senior leader of the project. “The good news is that we definitely can adapt the device to test for just about any allergen.”

More good news: The research team has granted a license to a local start-up company to make iEAT commercially available. The company plans to merge the three components into a single module to make it even more convenient to use. Production on a larger scale is also expected to reduce the price of the unit considerably.

What do our experts say? “Such a gadget, depending on its accuracy and validation, may be very helpful for families addressing food allergy issues,” explains Dr. Girish Vitalpur, pediatric allergist at Indiana University Health. “Nevertheless, all families that have members with a food allergy should still continue to be vigilant, asking questions, and carrying emergency epinephrine as well,” he maintains.

In the meantime, makers of iEAT say that in addition to supporting food safety in the U.S., the device could also be valuable for travelers in countries where there are no specific requirements for food labels—or to identify food contamination with bacteria such as E. Coli more swiftly.

— By Sarah Burns