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Food Sensor Checks for Traces of Peanuts, Gluten

A chemistry-based sensor ups the game of food technology.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, research has provided compelling evidence of the impact of food allergies in the United States, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization.

FARE reports that up to 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children, have a food allergy, and that nearly 40% of these children have already experienced a severe or life-threatening reaction.

There’s never been a more critical time for food technology to help improve the quality of life for children and adults who suffer from food allergies.

Shireen Yates, founder and CEO of Nima Labs in San Francisco, California, has developed what her company’s website calls the world’s first portable, connected food sensor.

After finding out in college of a personal food allergy, Yates was inspired to develop something that could give her better information about the food she was putting in her body.

“I was at a wedding and asked a waitress if the appetizers were gluten-free. The waitress responded, “How sick do you get?” I thought then, could I have another data point in my hand to know more about the bite of food that I was about to take? That inspired the idea of the Nima sensor,” Yates says.

What Is It?

The sensor is a chemistry-based sensor broken into two parts. The first part is an electronic sensor and the second part is a one-time-use capsule that contains all of the chemistry needed to check the protein in that sample.

How Does It Work?

The user takes a pea-size sample of the food they want to test for gluten or peanuts and inserts into the capsule. The capsule is then inserted into the electronic sensor.

After pressing the start button, the sample gets compressed and after a few minutes, the user gets a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether that sample contains the protein you’re checking for.

As food technology grows, Yates sees this as a growing category. “We’re just at the beginning of this. And more devices based around this idea of a connected food sensor are just going to become much more commonplace.”

Connected is a critical term to understand, with this device, Yates says.

“With the app that is available with the Nima, you can see what other people are testing at other restaurants and packaged foods. And you can see what their results have been for those places.”

The company’s website reports that 20,000 tests results have been recorded by use of the app.

“For instance, if I’m visiting Iowa, I can bring up the app and see what restaurants have been tested and if any are safe for me to eat in,” she says.

The Nima sensor is the first to hit the market. That can be both a great opportunity and a great challenge, Yates says.

“Not a lot of people know, yet, that this product exists. So, I think the more players that are in this space the more it will increase the awareness that a product like this exists and that people need it,” Yates says.

Trustworthy Technology

A lot of parents of children who have allergies are always concerned about the trustworthiness of a waitress at a restaurant when it comes to confirming the safety of the food. Similarly, family or friend gatherings that involve food consumption are always risky.

“We have all of our third-party lab validations on our website, nimasensor.com. For gluten testing, the Nima sensor is rated as 97% accurate. For peanuts, our sensor ranges from 98% to 99% accurate,” she says.

Yet, even for stuff labeled gluten-free, the sensor is detecting gluten one out of three times, Yates says.

“We know that because we can see, through the app, what people are testing. “So, this sensor works and works well,” Yates says.

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