Are you sure that there aren't any peanuts in that cookie? For people with severe allergies, the answer to such questions can be extremely important. That's why scientists from Harvard Medical School are developing a highly portable system that can identify allergens in foods.
The system is known as integrated exogenous antigen testing – or iEAT – and reportedly only costs about US$40 to build.
It consists of three main parts. There's a handheld device that's used for collecting allergens from foods, a key fob-sized electronic analyzer that identifies those allergens, and a smartphone app that wirelessly displays readings from that analyzer.
In its current form, iEAT is able to detect five major food allergens found in peanuts, hazelnuts, wheat, milk and eggs at levels "even lower than the gold standard laboratory assay," in less than 10 minutes. That said, it could conceivably be set up to detect almost any allergens, depending on individual users' allergies. It could also be used to detect toxic compounds, such as pesticides.
Using conventional technology, detection of allergens typically requires large, laboratory-based equipment, or takes a long time and doesn't detect low concentrations.
The research is being led by Ralph Weissleder and Hakho Lee, and is described in a paper recently published in the journal ACS Nano.