Nima Gluten Food Tester

In the United States alone, roughly 3 million people are affected by Celiac disease, a condition whose most painful symptom is a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Additionally, a currently unknown number of people suffer from non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, a fact that has been much debated but recently proven to be medically sound. While many restaurants have worked to provide gluten-free food options, recent market research discovered that customers attempting to adhere to a diet without gluten experience gluten contamination as often as one out of every three times they eat out.

Why Gluten-Free?

While the gluten-free fad has led to many people erroneously believing that going gluten-free will help them lose weight or improve their energy levels, most doctors disagree. However, for those suffering from Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a matter of necessity. Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine and can lead to osteoporosis, infertility, and even cancer. The most commonly known symptom of Celiac disease, and the one most likely to affect the day-to-day life of a Celiac sufferer, is a bad reaction to eating gluten. When someone with Celiac disease eats food containing gluten, his or her immune system responds by attacking the lining of the small intestine.

When exposed to gluten, those with Celiac disease can experience a number of unpleasant and painful symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, unwanted weight loss, fatigue, and skin rashes. These symptoms can often last for weeks after consuming even a miniscule amount of gluten, and for some people the damage done to their small intestines can be long-lasting or even permanent, leading to malnutrition due to an inability to absorb nutrients.

Labeling and Testing

The FDA has strict rules on product labeling to prevent those sensitive to gluten from being “glutenated.” In order for a company to claim its packaged food is gluten-free, the product must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the lowest threshold at which gluten can be detected by modern technology. This rule applies to packaged foods and dietary supplements, but not meat, eggs, or alcoholic beverages. It also does not apply to restaurants, but the FDA does suggest that restaurants follow the same 20-parts-per-million guideline when labeling dishes gluten-free.

Even with these labeling laws in place, gluten manages to sneak into an alarming amount of supposedly gluten-free food, causing Celiac disease sufferers unnecessary stress and pain. Until recently, there was no way for a consumer to easily test her food for gluten; she could only speak with the restaurant’s chef and server and hope protocols were followed to avoid cross-contamination. Now, a portable sensor is available to let consumers and restaurateurs alike test food to ensure its safety.

Trust but Verify

The first and, so far, only portable gluten testing device available is Nima, a pocket-sized sensor that uses disposable cartridges to test pea-sized food samples for gluten content. The sensor is also connected to a mobile app, allowing users to let others know which dishes at local restaurants tested as safe. In 3 minutes or less, gluten-sensitive consumers can find out if the tested dish has high gluten, low gluten, or no gluten, allowing consumers to eat without fear of gluten contamination. The company’s Community Stories page shows the device being used in the field, both confirming products as gluten-free and, in many cases, stopping someone from eating gluten-contaminated food that would have otherwise made her sick.

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What does Nima mean for restaurants? Nima’s website states in no uncertain terms that the device is not meant as a “gotcha” device, and instructs users to be honest and courteous about their Nima testing. Some customers may ask for samples of food before ordering dishes to avoid having full meals cooked that they cannot consume. If a meal does test positive for gluten, it will be up to the operator to decide whether to refund or replace the meal. A positive gluten test on a supposedly gluten-free meal is frustrating for both the restaurant and consumer, but can be used as an opportunity to improve kitchen and serving processes to eliminate problematic ingredients or cross-contamination.

“If the public is demanding healthier foods, use the data to your advantage,” says Shireen Yates, Nima CEO and Co-founder. “If data and reviews from the technology back your menu claims, promote your offerings using the reviews as a credible source. We hope, in the near future, Nima scores will be displayed alongside Zagat reviews in restaurant windows as a sign of pride in their food. If reviews are below the curve, take it as an opportunity to find out how and where you can improve processes. Ultimately, restaurants can use this data to be more transparent with their customers because they also have more information at their fingertips.”

Because food sensitivities go way beyond gluten, Nima is working on developing portable tests for common allergens. The company hopes to have testing for peanuts and milk available sometime this year.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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