No shellfish, no peanuts, no soy, no milk, no eggs. An increasing number of people suffer from various food allergies, which force them to constantly scan food packages for allergen information that is often unclear, lacking or even false. But now there is the Allergen Beagle, a personal food scanner that empowers people with an ‘extra sense’, allowing them to inspect their food for potentially allergy-evoking substances.

Whereas today, people with a food allergy are dependent on expensive and inaccessible lab tests, they might one day simply ask their beagle to test their food and avoid or locate the cause of an allergic response. The Allergen Beagle was designed by Sebastian Goudsmit who graduated cum laude at the Eindhoven University of Technology with this project developed in the Next Nature lab.

Food mass production and the rise of allergies

With the rise of industrialization of western countries, production, processing and consumption of food has endured extreme changes. Driven by the aim for broad and versatile offer and high quality but low price, food moved out of the hands of the local farmers, bakers and other craftsmen into international mass-production facilities.

Parallel to these developments, a particular medical condition becomes more and more prevalent:the food allergy syndrome. Currently prevalence of this syndrome is 2-5% in adults and 6-8% in children. Medical research indicates a swift increase of these numbers in the coming years (Hourihane et al 1998: p. 1271–1275). One of the most prominent Dutch allergy treatment research centers, the Elizabeth hospital Tilburg, warns that in the coming decade one in three children is likely to suffer from food allergies and tends to take on epidemic characteristics

People with the food allergy syndrome suffer from a range of heavy clinical symptoms, simply by eating a particular food product. Most occurring food allergens are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat. (Ezendam et al. 2005, p2). The symptoms range from the oral allergy syndrome, to skin disorders, to gastro- intestinal disorders to even anaphylactic shocks (which can be lethal). (Asero 2007). At present, medical science lacks a cure for food allergies: keeping from any exposure to the allergen at all cost is the only measure for the patient. (Asero 2007).

Although a clear communality (in time) is visible with the mass-production and globalization of food production, immunologists and allergologists remain uncertain about the actual relationships between food allergies and food mass production. However, one thing is for sure: due to food mass production, it has become extremely complex to avoid allergens. Shared production lines, shared preparation processes and shared transport lead to cross-contamination more than ever. (Mills et al. 2004).

At present, international regulations do not oblige companies to declare cross-contaminations on food ingredient labels. Furthermore, in mass food production typical allergens such as soy, egg and wheat widely are used as basic components (for instance as binders or emulsifiers). (David, 1989; David, 1993). As a consequence, many food products contain undeclared food allergens and provide a large potential danger to patients suffering from food allergies. (Ezendam et al. 2005, p2).

So, what does this mean for the patient?

When a patient suffering from food allergies attempts to manage his or her food diet, he or she is not only very restricted in his or her food choice, he or she he is also confronted with food ingredient labels which provide poor information: the labels are incomplete, unclear or even incorrect about the possible allergenic contents of the food product. In practice this means that the patients are living in a minefield: they have to rely on trial -and-error to find out if a food product is free from allergens. This trial -and-error process proves to be burdensome and ineffective, and induces a high stress level on both patients and their social surroundings. (Sampson et al. 2008, p.443).

At the Technical University of Eindhoven Sebastian Goudsmit has dedicated his graduation project to an extensive evaluation of the present situation of food allergen management in manufacturing companies on one side, and user behavior on the other side. Next he has developed a food scanner, named the Allergen Beagle, which enables users to screen food for possible allergenic contents in their own homes, with a straight forward automated test at low-cost. This product has been developed together with three academic hospitals and manufacturing companies. At this moment, the system is able to detect peanut, shellfish,  gluten, lactose, hazelnut, egg, soy, almonds and sesame. Future tests are developed to broaden this spectrum.

How does the Allergen Beagle work?

This product proves to be a valuable tool for people suffering from allergies. The tool empowers users to make sure that their diets are allergen free. This is done in two ways: before introduction into the diet, the patient can screen the food product for allergens he or she is allergic to, and hence obtain more certainty about the possible allergenic contents of the food . The system can also be of value when the patient has had an accidental allergic reaction. In this case the system can be used to trace back which food component has been responsible for the reaction. In this way, the Allergen Beagle may relieve the patient of feeling constantly at risk of an allergic reaction (which can be lethal).

As shown in the movie, the user goes through the following steps:

1. Take multiple small samples from the food to be screened for allergens.

2. There is one test-tube needed per allergen to be tested. Select the test tubes needed.

3. Fill up the tubes with the test-tube with the sample.

4. Insert the test tube into the Allergen Beagle.

5. An automated process completes the procedure.

6. During the procedure a bright light elicits the process.

7. When the light turns off, the test can be read. If the ‘ Test line’ colour turns dark, and  the ‘ Control line’ turns dark, the allergen is present.

Images and movie by Sebastian Goudsmit

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  • How can I get in touch with Mr. Goudsmit and/or Walmink? I work in Current Science & Technology at the Museum of Science in Boston and I'd like to talk to our museum visitors about this cool invention. If possible, could you contact me? Thank you! --Julia (jsable at mos dot org)

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  • I believe this is a great project that shows that a master's project can be simultanuously rooted deeply in research and design. Very inspiring! P.s. Most photos actually "by Wouter Walmink" ;-)

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