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Portable Gadget Tests Food For Allergens

A much-anticipated portable device for detecting gluten in food has hit the market.

A portable gluten detector sits next to a breakfast plate

Photo: Courtesy of Nima

The Nima device for detecting gluten, which sells for $279, shows a wheat icon when it detects gluten, and a smiley face if the sample is safe to eat.

People who suffer from food allergies now have a possible ally to bring to the table.

MIT graduate Shireen Yates, who suffers from allergies to gluten and other foods, teamed up with a classmate in 2013 to develop a device that can detect food contents that she said “could really ruin my night.”

She said the idea for the device came in a “moment of hangry,” when she found herself at a friend’s wedding without her usual bag of safe snacks.

“At this particular wedding, though, I had forgotten to bring at least some snacks, and these delicious looking appetizers were passed out and I asked the waiter, ‘are these gluten-free?’ And she said ‘how badly do you react?’ And it was at that moment when I said how wonderful would it be if I could just take one sample of this, and have one additional data point to make a better decision.”

Idea To Table

Yates and her business partner Scott Sundvor won MIT’s $100K Accelerate competition with the idea, and used the winnings to co-found a company based in San Francisco. They raised $14 million in venture capital to develop the device, named “Nima,” which finally became available in January.

Consumers can put a pea-sized sample of food into the device, and it signals “safe” or “not safe” depending on whether the sample has levels of protein that are under or over FDA levels for gluten free.

Allergen tests have been available on an industrial level for a long time, but this is the first pocket-sized device of its kind to date.

Yates is careful to point out that it’s not meant to be a perfect lab test and it does have some blind spots, as with foods that contain alcohol or are fermented or hydrolyzed.

Yates said the technology they’ve developed can easily shift to detect other allergy-inducing proteins. A peanut sensor is currently in development, and should be ready to launch this fall, she said. Next on the white board will be dairy and tree-nut sensors.

Busted

Beyond its ability to detect gluten levels in the moment, this device connects to a phone app that collects data to share with other users.

Results have been troubling.

She said since the device has been in use, nearly one third of the foods that are labeled gluten-free are testing positive for gluten.

“We want to make sure that every single test becomes a potential data point in this unprecedented network of food transparency that doesn’t exist today.”

Read More:

  • I Tested ‘Gluten-Free’ Food With The New Gluten Sensor—Here’s What I Found (Popular Science)
  • You Can Now Buy a Device that Tells You When You’re About to Eat Gluten (Fortune)
  • A Food-Allergen Detection Device For Diners, Cooked Up At MIT (CNBC)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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