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Small Sensor Detects Food Allergens

A new device was developed by 6Sensor Labs, a company whose core mission is to empower people with dietary restrictions, allowing them to enjoy foods from various restaurants and other sources without worrying about their health and safety. The new device, the Nima Sensor, is designed to detect specific allergens in order to protect consumers with life-threatening allergies and other diseases that limit their food consumption.

The device begins working when a sample of food or drink is dropped into a disposable cartridge that is inserted into the device. It takes approximately two minutes to get a result. When used, a face will appear, either smiling or frowning, depending on the presence of the allergen in your food. This makes it easy-to-read, even for little ones.

 

Gluten Sensor

The Nima Sensor began as a way to detect gluten so that people with Celiac disease or a gluten allergy can be more comfortable enjoying food from their favorite restaurants and celebrating special occasions without worrying about consuming something that may make them ill. The device is compact and is surprisingly accurate, capable of detecting gluten at 20 parts per million or more.

CEO Shireen Yates is sensitive to gluten and developed the idea out of necessity. “The idea itself came to me at a wedding,” she said. Yates asked a waitress if the appetizers were gluten-free. The waitress responded with a question of her own, asking Yates how allergic she was. “I thought, I’d really like to be able to take a sample and know.”

Yates ran with this idea during grad school at MIT. She was inspired to create a device that was not only portable but could generate quick results and quantify exactly how much gluten food and beverages contained.

Nima differs from other similar products on the market in that it uses a custom chemical process rather than spectroscopy to identify gluten. “We wanted to be able to detect at one part per million of a protein, to say confidently that a sample had something or not,” said Yates. “The only way to do this is through chemistry detection.”

While the device may not be as accurate at that level and yields the best results at 20 ppm or more, the company believes that having separate sensors for each type of allergen will yield much better results. Having one sensor that tests only for gluten will be far more accurate than one that is attempting to check for multiple allergens all at once.

Users are able to share their results via the Nima App, allowing the gluten-free community to use the device with greater confidence. This new tool is great for those with gluten allergies and Celiac disease. Although many establishments and companies offer gluten-free menus and products, these can be more appealing to people who are gluten-free by choice than those who avoid gluten out of necessity.

People with Celiac disease have to be very careful about the food they consume. Even if the food does not directly contain gluten, it may become unintentionally contaminated with gluten by other products prepared in the same space using the same dishes, utensils, etc. Many establishments with gluten-free menus tend to be geared more toward fad dieters than those with severe allergies and lack the knowledge and training to ensure food safety for these individuals. For this reason, innovative products like the Nima Sensor can provide added security and peace of mind for individuals with severe allergies and food-related diseases.

Research conducted on the devices has shown that Nima displays 99.5 per cent accuracy at 20 parts per million of gluten. “We conduct on-going food testing to provide feedback on our accuracy, and this time, we compared our chemistry to a leading antibody, using outside laboratories to conduct the comparisons for us.”

 

How to Use Nima to Find Gluten in Food; Credit: Nima Sensor

 

Peanut Sensor

Nima has added a new sensor capable of detecting peanuts and peanut oil, which is a huge breakthrough for those suffering from peanut allergies. This life-threatening allergy is frightening and can make people extremely cautious of the foods they eat. People with peanut allergies cannot come into contact with peanut oil in any way.

Children with allergies are often separated from their peers at schools, and children consuming peanuts are instructed to wash and sanitize their hands thoroughly after eating. If a child consumes a peanut butter sandwich, for instance, they will likely have peanut oil remaining on their hands. If they then go outside to play tag, they could accidentally cause a severe allergic reaction in a fellow classmate.

The peanut sensor can detect 10 parts per million of peanut protein, a level set after extensive research. According to Nima’s Research and Development team, the peanut sensor has shown to be 98.8 per cent accurate when scanning food samples containing 10 parts per million or more.

“As peanut does not have an FDA determined limit for ‘safe’ levels in foods as they do with gluten, our test is set to detect at the lowest of the range for LOAEL, or lowest-observed-adverse-effect level (the lowest amount that has been shown to cause an adverse reaction). LOAEL for peanut ranges from 0.25 to 10 mg of protein (FDA/Threshold Working Group: Journal of Food Protection Vol. 71, No. 5, 2008). The lowest part of this range corresponds to 10 parts per million for a standard serving size of 100 grams. LOAEL is a safety assessment-based approach, based on clinical data linked to biological effects.”

 

How to Use the Nima Peanut Sensor; Credit: Nima Sensor

 

Problems and Suggestions

As remarkable as the device is, it is not without its faults. Users have noted that the device produces a loud sound while in use, drawing unnecessary attention that those with allergies seek to avoid in the first place. The high price tag is also a complaint among some. The device itself is $289, and the capsules cost $6.

Users have also noted problems with the size of the device and capsule. Although it is compact by design so that it is easier to carry, it can make it difficult to test an adequate portion of the food without using multiple capsules. If the person needs to test a breaded chicken sandwich, for instance, they would need separate capsules for the chicken and the bun.

Another issue is that the sensor is not as accurate with alcohol due to the fermentation process, which makes gluten far less detectable, though it would have just as much of an effect on someone with a gluten allergy or Celiac disease as any other food or beverage containing gluten. It also cannot test for gluten in medicines or makeup. Nima cannot test for hydrolyzed gluten, nor is there 100 per cent accuracy in any of their sensors.

According to 6Sensor Labs, “Nima can’t guarantee that your entire meal will be free of a specific allergen.” It can only provide results for the specific sample placed in the capsule. This is not an issue when checking to see if a piece of bread was made with gluten-free flour, but it can prevent users from catching food that was unknowingly cross-contaminated, as well as food that may contain bits of peanuts rather than the entire thing being made from peanuts or peanut oil.

Despite these issues, the device is more than worth the investment for the sheer peace of mind it provides. Although a quieter, slightly larger version of the device would certainly be well-received, Nima’s life-saving capabilities far outweigh cosmetic issues and embarrassment experienced by the user.

 

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