Food sensor from US startup allows users to test for allergens

Credit: Nima.

Many people suffer from food allergies, and for them dining out can be a hassle which often involves uncertainty even after extensive questioning of the restaurant staff about the allergen content of the food on the menu. A new device from US startup Nima aims to make this process easier and safer by enabling the user to sample small amounts of the dish they are about to consume and input them into the device, which will then give a highly-precise reading on the allergen content of the sample.

Starter kits for the device are currently being sold for $279 on Nima’s website. The device uses disposable capsules to load the food into the main component for testing, and these capsules can be bought as a subscription service delivered to the user’s door, working out at about $5 per capsule. The current release only tests for gluten, which is one of the common allergies or intolerances today (intolerances cause mild discomfort for the sufferer, while allergic reactions are more severe and involve the immune system of multiple organs responding).

The device is about the same size as a thick closed wallet. Each capsule for insertion into the device is 2.5 inches long. After testing a piece of food, the device can give one of three readings: no gluten present (less than 20 parts per million), low gluten, or high gluten. Nima recommends that users call restaurants in advance and make enquiries, and then request samples of what they want to order.

The device takes 2 minutes to return the reading. The company says it is inconspicuous, and only makes a small noise while processing. It uses protein detection to identify allergens, but cannot detect gluten in fermented or hydrolysed foods. There are 8 major foods that cause allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. Later this year the company plan to release a peanut detecting device.

The device was founded by two MIT engineering graduates, Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor (both of whom have allergies or intolerances) and has received $13.2m in funding so far. The company has been listed on CNBC’s top 25 startups to watch, and got a start with a $100k investment from the MIT Accelerate competition.

It was founded in 2013, and Yates said the concept originally arose from her experience at a friend’s wedding, where she found it difficult to ascertain if the food options contained things she was allergic to (egg, soy, dairy and wheat). She said of the experience and resulting idea: “I was tired of answering the same questions (and really hangry at the time). I just wanted a quick, easy way to test a piece of the dish and see for myself if it was gluten-free”.

“Along every step of the way of researching, prototyping and building Nima, well-respected industry professionals told us we couldn’t make a gluten test faster, smaller or easier to use for consumers. I kept asking why not until I was satisfied, and I wasn’t easily satisfied,” Yates continued.

Until now, there have not been many options for consumers in this regard. Most food testing for allergens requires a lengthy 10-step process at a laboratory, which requires sending food samples. Alternatively, consumers can purchase one of these kits, but they are impossible to use at a restaurant. Nima represents a breakthrough in the industry.

Gluten sensitivity is one of the most common allergen related health issues (affecting around 6% of the US population), with celiac disease (one type in this category) adding $10,000 per outpatient in fees on average. This has all led to the gluten-free food industry’s growth, which is now worth nearly $3bn per year.

That being said, the device is to use Nima in conjunction with other gluten precautions, since it does not totally guarantee the detection of gluten and is not governmentally regulated. Furthermore, it is only used to sample, and the rest of the food on the plate could contain gluten. “Nima is not a diagnostic nor a medical device. It tests a sample of food and gives you more data about that sample. It’s an extra screen before you eat, but not a guarantee that an entire plate is gluten-free (or in the future, peanut-free, milk-free, tree nut-free, etc.),” according to Yates.

According to the CEO of the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), James R. Baker Jr., MD, devices like Nima should be used with caution: “When dining out, we feel that there is no substitute for doing due diligence and questioning chefs and restaurant staff to stay safe. Food allergies are potentially life-threatening, and given the disclaimers, it is not clear how these types of devices would be useful.”

Aside from testing food, Nima is hoping to create a crowdsourced platform of reviews of establishments and products based on their allergy-friendliness. This is another benefit of the product, since users can contribute rigorously tested data. Nima is used in conjunction with an app for iOS and Android which shows the results, and users will be able to share this data with others through the apps as well as grade the restaurant or product based on their experiences.

It is also hoped this will be helpful to businesses by giving them a better idea of how their users respond to their allergen-free claims, and could help them improve processes in this regard.

Yates continued: “Community members want to help each other and share their knowledge. They upload, share and view test results from others and make more informed decisions about where to eat before they even sit down at the table.”

More information can be found at: Nima.

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