Smartphone Apps Offer Few Shortcuts For Those With Food Allergies | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : News

Filed Under:

Smartphone Apps Offer Few Shortcuts For Those With Food Allergies

Managing food allergies can be a pain, requiring lots of sleuthing of ingredients in restaurants and supermarkets. But people with potentially lethal allergies to nuts and other foods don't have much choice.

Dozens of smartphone apps offer to make that task easier. Doctors say, though, the apps now on the market just aren't reliable enough.

We here at The Salt got to thinking about food allergy apps when we ran across Aydogan Ozcan's new smartphone-based food chemistry lab. The iTube uses a standard cellphone camera to analyze a food's chemical composition. A user need only pop a chunk of food into one of the two wee test tubes attached to the phone, wait 20 minutes, and — presto! — laboratory results, in parts per million.

Ozcan, a professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, specializes in re-engineering cell phones into tools. He invented, for example, an inexpensive microscope that could be used to test blood for malaria parasites or the HIV virus.

He envisions the iTube as a tool for schools, restaurants and, of course, parents of children with food allergies. Users of the minilab could upload their results to a personal database or share the results with people around the world to create a crowdsourced food allergy database.

Ozcan recently tested the iTube prototype with store-bought cookies and found that his device accurately identified the presence of peanuts. The results are published online in the journal Lab on a Chip.

Charmed as we are by this invention, we realized that when talking about life-threatening illnesses it would be good to talk to a doctor. So we called up Scott Sicherer, a researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He is not charmed at all.

"I definitely have concerns and skepticism and warnings for my patients who use any of these things," he told The Salt. "As far as I know, they are not accurate enough to rely on."

Food allergy apps on the market fall into three categories: food journals, to track foods eaten and symptoms; databases of food ingredients; and bar code scanners that can be used to determine food ingredients.

The food journals seem like they'd be harmless, since all the data comes from the person using them. But Sicherer says they could lead people to self-diagnose an allergy that isn't there and put themselves on needlessly restrictive diets. "Talk to a doctor" about symptoms, he says. "Don't try to diagnose yourself. That's where people get themselves into trouble."

A scan of available iPhone and Android food database apps reveals lukewarm reviews, with people noting inconsistency between the apps and actual product labels. Given how often food manufacturers change products and ingredients, it seems like maintaining an accurate, comprehensive database for an app would be difficult at best. Sicherer says: "When you're talking about your health and safety, you might not want to rely on that."

How about the bar code readers? They've been very successful for companies, such as Weight Watchers, that offer them to help people identify the calorie, fat, and fiber content in packaged foods.

But Sicherer dumps cold water on the notion of relying on these kinds of apps for finding potential allergens. "There's a big difference if you're deciding if something's going to send you into [life-threatening] anaphylaxis, or if the calories are higher or lower. The margin of error is different."

Unfortunately, Sicherer says, the most reliable and simplest thing to do to avoid food allergens is still to "read the label carefully, [and] ask questions in a restaurant."

Ozcan's lab on a phone looks like it could take care of the inaccuracy problem. But the prototype requires users to undertake a mini chemistry experiment. They would have to grind up the food, mix it in a test tube with hot water and a solvent, and then mix it with a series of testing liquids. That process takes about 20 minutes.

Imagine buying a brownie in a coffee shop and then going through that 20-minute drill. Suddenly asking the server "Does this have nuts in it?" seems like not such an ordeal.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


Not My Job: Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Gets Quizzed On Downhill Cheese Races

If you think downhill ski racing is dangerous, then you've never seen the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Races, in which competitors hurl their bodies down a steep hill, chasing a wheel of cheese.

Spread Of Palm Oil Production Into Africa Threatens Great Apes

Palm oil growers are setting their sights on Africa as they amp up production. More than half of the land that's been set aside for plantations in Africa overlaps with ape habitats, researchers say.
WAMU 88.5

Democrats Push To Overturn Hobby Lobby Ruling

Virginia's Tim Kaine and other Democrats are trying to overturn the ruling with legislation they say will protect female workers.

Friday Feline Fun: A Ranking Of The Most Famous Internet Cats

Forget the Forbes Celebrity 100. This is the Friskies 50 — the new definitive guide of the most influential cats on the Internet. The list is based on a measure of the cats' social media reach.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.