If you are coeliac or suffer from an allergy imagine a future where you could test almost any food or drink, anywhere, quickly, and confirm whether or not it is safe for you to eat.
That future is nearly here. It is called Nima.
Nima is a portable device designed for consumers. It is capable of detecting gluten in liquids and solid foods at the 20 parts per million (ppm) level. As of September 2016 it is available for pre-order in the US only. Worldwide distribution is intended as is expansion to cover other allergens. Tests for peanuts and milk are under development.
Nima made TIME Magazine top 25 inventions of 2015. I am enormously excited for this technology. Give me a choice between a wireless Virtual Reality headset, a self-driving car and Nima? I will take Nima. Thank you! Bring it over to the UK soon please Nima people!
How Does it Work?
Nima uses capsules within which a small sample of food or drink is inserted. The capsule is then inserted into Nima and a couple of minutes later Nima returns a smiley face (no gluten!) or an unsmiley face (gluten!)
Detection is based on immunoassay using custom antibodies that bond to gluten molecules and change their colour, making them visible to an optical sensor within the device. This kind of test is the same as that commonly used by food industry and in laboratories. The real beauty of Nima lies in the consumer friendly miniaturized form factor.
How Reliable is it?
Nima is designed to detect gluten above 20 ppm with at least 99.5% accuracy. That means that a false positive or negative should occur no more than once every 200 uses. Nima are publishing test results including a benchmark comparison against an existing industry standard test, an accuracy evaluation showing 99.5% accuracy and field test reports from restaurants in San Francisco. Everything looks good.
There are some limitations. Nima cannot detect gluten in fermented foods such as beer, soy sauce and miso. If you are testing a restaurant meal for cross-contamination and the meal contains several different foods you will gain information only about the specific foods tested rather than the whole meal.
Why Would I Want This?
My driving reason for wanting Nima is to add an extra layer to my Swiss Cheese model for cross-contamination risk reduction. Swiss cheese model? This means creating multiple layers of defenses against hazards so that if one defense fails others succeed and the hazard does not cause an incident.
For example before I eat out at a new restaurant, here is what I do –
- Visit the restaurant website and search for information about their allergy free meals
- Search via Google and Trip Advisor looking for positive and negative reviews mentioning gluten
- Sometimes contact the venue in advance to inquire about their allergy free catering
- On arrival, identify myself as a celiac and quiz my server and sometimes the manager or chef
- On receipt of food check with the server that it is the gluten-free food I ordered
Nima would come in as an additional layer reducing even further the remaining risk.
I *really* want this and have in mind 3 very specific applications.
1. Dry Food Testing especially of ‘May Contain’ foods
After my coeliac diagnosis one of the most challenging foods for me to find a substitute for was protein powder. I consumed quite a lot as I was a plant-based eater and a keen weight lifter. I discovered to dismay that whilst few protein powders deliberately contain gluten as an ingredient many are subject to cross-contamination risk. I eventually found Pulsin’ which is now a relative powerhouse of gluten-free powders and snack bars. In 2011 Pulsin’ was one of very few vendors offering a definitely gluten-free protein powder thanks to processing everything within their own 100% gluten free facility. Before that discovery I contacted numerous protein powder producers none of whom were certain of their own GF credentials. I also bought and used Gluten-In-Food Testing Kits from Immutest and found that several brands, including my own favourite, tested positive for greater than 20ppm gluten. These brands did not feature a “May Contain Gluten” warning.
Those Immutest Kits are tricky to use. A sample needs to be homogenized (blended) before being entered into a syringe and then carefully dripped onto a pad. Then there is a 10-15 minute wait for the results. The cost is just over £10 per kit.
I would like to occasionally test dry foods (flour, cocao, protein, sprouting seeds) and sauces and dips that I buy regularly.
2. Restaurant Testing
Quoting Ronald Reagan, “Trust but Verify”. Most venues offering gluten free meals are not 100% gluten-free and therefore safety is achieved via mitigation of cross-contamination risk. Kitchen protocols, staff training, separate surfaces and utensils. There are some venues that I trust sufficiently to eat but for which I would also welcome an added layer of assurance. I am thinking particularly of places offering things at risk of cross contamination if protocols are not rigorously followed such as toasted gluten free buns and fried foods.
3. Whilst Travelling
It is relatively easy to eat gluten free in London, at home and eating out. Travel, especially abroad, presents greater challenge and risk. Availability of gluten free foods. Familiarity with allergy safe food preparation. Language issues. Slices of my Swiss Cheese can go missing due to the non-availability of online menus and doubts about whether I have been able to communicate my needs effectively to a non-native English speaker.
Being able to test food served to me on planes, in restaurants, corporate catering and hotels would provide a very welcome extra layer of defense.
Do You Want This?
As much as I want Nima I can also understand why some people might not. Whilst far more affordable than any other option available to a consumer the one-use capsules still cost about £4.50 ($6). Some might argue that if there is any risk at all worth testing for then it is better not to eat the food. Others still might feel a little awkward about using Nima in public. I accept these reservations and believe there is still a valuable role for Nima in my own approach to eating safely.
Would you like to have Nima? If not, why? If yes, what would you use it for?