How many of us celiacs have been terrified of eating out because we just don’t know if our food will be contaminated with gluten? What if someone developed a machine that could test your food before you ate it to determine if there was gluten in it or not? Boy, would that relieve a lot a stress, right?
That machine may be here. 6SensorLabs has just started taking pre-orders for their new Nima gluten sensor. For those unfamiliar with the device, the Nima will allow people to test small samples of foods for the possible presence of gluten.
6SensorLabs, the people who developed the Nima, claim that it can detect instances of cross-contamination “where foods may be cooked in the same oil (for example french fries) or in the same water (such as gluten free pasta being cooked in the same water as wheat-based pasta).”
How does the Nima work?
The Nima gluten sensor is composed of two parts. The main sensor is about 3.0 inches x 3.5 inches and weighs about 3 ounces. That makes it pocket-sized and small enough to take to dinner. The second part is a disposable capsule. If you want to test a sample of food, you simply place the food into the capsule. The capsule is then inserted into the main unit. Within 2 – 3 minutes, the sensor will display a result of positive or negative for gluten.
The device uses a chemical-mechanical process to detect the presence of gluten at a level of at least 20 ppm (parts per million). 20 ppm is the number established by the FDA that allows producers to label their food gluten free.
6SensorLabs claims that the device has been tested and re-tested by their science team. They promise to release validation data on their device in the upcoming months. You can watch a video of the Nima here. Since the Nima is not a medical device, no FDA certification is necessary.
How much does the Nima cost?
The Nima can now be pre-ordered for $199 + $8 shipping for the main sensor. The sensor comes with 3 disposable capsules. The capsules can only be used once. Additional capsules can be purchased for $47.95 for 12 capsules. That means that besides the cost of the sensor, each food test will cost over $4.00.
What the Nima doesn’t do
- Because of the fermentation process used to make beer, the Nima cannot test for gluten in gluten free beer.
- It will not test for gluten in medicines or make-ups. It will only test food samples.
- It will not test for hydrolyzed gluten.
- Finally, and this is very important, 6SensorLabs cautions on their website: “Nima can’t guarantee that your entire meal will be free of a specific allergen.” The reason for this is that the Nima can only test for a specific area of food on the plate. Therefore it is quite possible that Nima may test an area negative for gluten while another area of the plate may actually test positive for gluten. 6SensorLabs concurs with this assessment, “Nima will only be able to provide results for the sample of food you’ve inserted into the device. There may be hot spots that the sensor doesn’t detect because it wasn’t in the sample you used for the test.”
My thoughts on the Nima
1. I’m encouraged that people in the scientific community are attempting to make the world easier to manage for those with celiac disease.
2. The Nima as a consumer product may benefit someone who must eat out often and is unsure of what is in his or her food.
3. A positive result for gluten would definitely limit the possibility of someone with celiac from getting sick.
Since the Nima can only test a certain portion of food, its use as an identifier of cross-contamination might be severely limited. Suppose some croutons were put on a salad in the kitchen and then removed. If the portion of food tested had not come in contact with the croutons, it would test negative for gluten, but the salad could still contain gluten. Another possible scenario could be a preparer who had flour on his hands or apron and possibly touched the food. If this area was not the one tested with the Nima, the food could still contain gluten but show a negative result. The use of the Nima could therefore create a false sense of security when identifying food.
The cost of the disposable capsules might also be a drawback to some. The cost of the capsules once the pre-order phase is over may cost closer to $5.00. This means every time you test a portion of food, it will add $5.00 to the cost of the meal you’re testing. Some may say it’s worth $5.00 to know you’re safe. True, however, see point #1 above. You may not really know if you’re 100% safe or not. Further, there is also the cost-benefit to consider depending on what food you’re testing. For example, someone may want to know if their $4.00 flourless tort is gluten free. They then use their Nima to find out. The cost of that tort will now be $9.00. Obviously, for some, the cost-benefit may not be worth it.
3. The Practicality of Using the Nima
Will people really use the Nima? Imagine that you are in a restaurant and you are really hungry. You order your food and then wait 20 minutes for it finally to arrive. Then you take out your Nima and test your food. Remember you must remove a sample and put it in a capsule. People around you are curiously wondering what you’re doing. Then the food turns up positive for gluten. It’s inedible. What do you do then? Do you send your dish back and order the same meal? But that one could be risky too. Do you order a different dish and then test that one? This could get complicated, time consuming, and expensive.
4. How Will Restaurants React?
How will the restaurant staff react when the food they assured you was gluten free comes back positive? Will this type of testing devices motivate restaurants to be more or less gluten friendly?
5. False Results
I have not seen in 6SenorLabs literature if the Nima experiences any false positive or negatives. This would be a good thing to know.
I think it’s a wonderful thing that scientists are working hard to try and make gluten free living easier. However, at this time, I don’t think the Nima is something I would use. The risks and costs simply outweigh the benefits.
When I eat out, I try to make sure I eat at a restaurant that I can trust. I have a list of restaurants that make a point of catering to the gluten free community. These places usually care about the food they offer.
If circumstances force me to eat at a restaurant I’ve never visited before, I make sure I order food that usually cannot be easily contaminated. I use my experience. Is it possible that it may be contaminated? Yes. As Bilbo says in The Lord of the Rings, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door.” The only way to limit the possibility of cross-contamination is by not eating out that much or by not eating out at all.
Ultimately, if eating out is important for you, if the cost of the Nima is no concern, and you want to minimize the risk of being “glutened”, then the Nima may be for you.
I believe in the future this kind of testing device will get cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use. I’ll wait to buy mine until then.
What is your take on the Nima? Would you buy one? We would love to hear from you.
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