By Kristen Chandler
If you or someone close to you has food allergies, you know that managing food allergies takes a lot of preparation and research. At home, managing food allergies isn’t necessarily easier, but it becomes your way of life. In other cases, it becomes more difficult because other people are involved. Dining out is one of those cases.
Yes, there are several precautions you can take prior to dining out. Call ahead of time and discuss your food allergies with the manager or cook. Give your server a card that has allergen information and meal prep instructions on it. Ask that the table be thoroughly cleaned before you sit down.
However, you could follow all of these steps and there could still be accidental exposure. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of device that we could use to check our food for allergens while dining out?
An Idea That Led to an Invention
Shirleen Yates is a food allergy advocate and is allergic to gluten, dairy, soy and eggs. Because of her food allergies, she often carried safe snack foods with her. Once while attending a wedding, she forgot to bring her snacks. She asked someone serving foods at the reception if a particular dish was gluten-free. The server responded “How allergic are you?” Yates realized at the moment how tired she was of being asked that question, and wondered what it would be like to test a sample of the food before it was eaten and find out if it was safe. She mentioned her thoughts to a friend, who was also a chemical engineer. That’s how 6SensorLabs was born. Yates co-founded this startup company in 2014 to design products that tell people what is in their food, ideally people with food allergies or other dietary restrictions. The first product they have designed is a gluten sensor, called NIMA.
What is NIMA? It is a small, portable device that can detect if there are 20 parts per million (ppm) or more particles of gluten in the tested food. How does it work? The NIMA sensor comes with one-time-use capsules (the number of capsules you receive depends on the subscription you purchase). You place a small amount of the food you want to test into the capsule and plug the capsule into the NIMA. In approximately two minutes, the sensor will indicate if the gluten contained in the food is less than 20 ppm by displaying a smile on its screen. A frown is displayed if more than 20 ppm are detected. NIMA is portable, so you can take it pretty much anywhere you go. It is not waterproof and, like an epinephrine injector, requires temperature regulation.
What This Means for the Food Allergy Community
NIMA is still in its beta phase but is available for pre-order. Shipping of the product is expected to begin in the fall of 2016. Over 3,000 food samples have already been tested by NIMA, with more being tested daily. At this time, it has the fastest result time of existing gluten testers.
While NIMA only tests for gluten at this time, tests for milk and peanuts are currently in development. The results for these tests should be released in 2017.
NIMA isn’t considered a medical device, so it may not be covered by insurance. However, programs are currently in place to help medical practices use and distribute NIMA. NIMA currently has third party tests being conducted to not only confirm the device works, but also validate the amount of the gluten levels it tests for.
This puts us one step closer to being even safer while dining out with food allergies. The food allergy future is looking bright!