By Jane Robinson
Guelph – An estimated 2.5 million Canadians report an allergy to at least one food, according to Food Allergy Canada. Peanut allergies alone affect the lives of approximately two in every 100 Canadian children.
As the list of food allergens continues to grow, there is a genuine need for a quick and accurate allergen test whether you are scrutinizing every snack for your child, or conducting randomized testing on a food production line. Current allergen testing can take hours, when minutes can make all the difference.
A new technology developed at the University of Guelph successfully shaves valuable hours off accurate testing, and will soon be widely available in Canada.
Prof. Suresh Neethirajan has developed a new test that accurately pinpoints and quantifies the presence of food allergens. Designed to deliver results in a matter of minutes, the test can be used by consumers, restaurants and food manufacturers for on-site testing in a user-friendly format.
“What we’ve developed is one of a kind,” explains Neethirajan, an associate professor in bioengineering in the School of Engineering at Guelph. “We have filed two U.S. patents to license our technology, and are in discussions with a major multinational company to bring this technology to consumers, and we’re working with the food industry to bring this testing to the production line.”
The new biosensor provides a one-step assay to test for the presence of food allergens and is intended for anyone who wants to avoid certain food ingredients.
“We have successfully tested the technology to measure food allergens including shrimp, egg and peanuts, and are working to expand to other food allergens,” says Neethirajan.
Using nanotechnology, the biosensor can pinpoint an exact allergen using just a miniscule amount of a food sample. Plate-side at a restaurant, consumer would simply put a small food sample in a tiny vial or cartridge, shake it for a few seconds then place in a reader to analyze the sample and provide results within minutes.
Neethirajan is validating two ways the technology can be adapted for use on food moving through a production line.
“With enhanced food labelling requirements, companies are under constant pressure to increase product purity. We are looking at real time automated random sampling and having food handlers conducting the testing directly,” says Neethirajan. “We want to make it easier for industry to be able to use the new sensor.”
Neethirajan has also developed a paper-based technology that delivers an inexpensive and simple way to tests for food allergens where resources are limited in more remote areas. The low-cost biosensor works like litmus paper and its origami-style design can test for two or three allergens.
“A small sample is placed on the coated paper – a colour change indicates the presence of the allergen and the gradient of the colour indicates the level of allergen. One paper biosensor costs only a few cents – it’s very simple to use, and could be given to school children in their lunch for easy, reliable testing,” says Neethirajan.
Photo source: Suresh Neethirajan, University of Guelph