Two minute test: Portable sensor tells consumers if product is gluten-free

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

Is what you're eating gluten-free? Sensor technology to help consumers test within minutes
Is what you're eating gluten-free? Sensor technology to help consumers test within minutes

Related tags Gluten-free food market Gluten-free diet Wheat Gluten

A San Francisco-based company has developed a portable sensor that will alert users whether their food contains gluten within two minutes.

Nima, which was developed by 6SenorLabs,​ allows people to put in a small sample of food they are about to consume and test whether it has under 20 parts-per-millions of gluten.

The company was co-founded out of MIT by CEO Shireen Yates and CTO Scott Sundvor, as both have their own daily battles with food allergies.

“We wanted to find out some way to be more proactive about knowing what was in our food rather than eating something and getting sick because we weren’t aware of what was in it,”​ Sundvor, who said he suffers from gluten intolerance, told BakeryandSnacks.

How Nima works

The device uses chemistry detection to analyze whether or not gluten is within the food sample, something Sundvor said will be 99.5% accurate before the company ships the product to the public in the summer of 2016. They are currently putting Nima through many tests to ensure it is as accurate as possible.

Nima will also feature an app that will allow users to share what restaurants and, potentially, products have a gluten-free product that tests positive for gluten.

When asked if there will eventually be a searchable database of not-so-gluten-free items, Sundover said it is something they are considering for future versions of the app.

Why is Nima important for the market?

According to a 2014 report from Mintel, the gluten-free food market was worth $8.8bn last year​, seeing an increase of 63% from 2012 to 2014. Snacks saw the biggest growth, with a 163% growth from 2012 to 2014, reaching $2.8bn in sales of gluten-free snacks.

Even bread has grown in the gluten-free market, as people try to find substitutes for the glutinous loaves they have grown up loving. Mintel said bread and cereal products saw a 43% increase from 2012 to 2014, growing to $1.3bn in 2014.

But is all of the food that comes from this market truly free of all gluten? Sundvor said he has seen a study which found that 5% of the packaged gluten-free food contains traces of gluten. When looking at restaurants, the number jumped to 20%.

“For the consumer, it is something that’s really important just so they really understand what’s in their food and they’re able to keep themselves healthy,” he​ said. “For the manufacturer’s side, no company really wants to go through issues.”

Avoiding issues and contamination

One recent issue Sundover pointed out was Cheerios’ recall of nearly 2m boxes of gluten-free cereal​. Companies and consumers alike would benefit from the ability to quickly test and understand what is in the food, he said, as avoiding “uncomfortable situations”​ and sickness is important.

Instead of causing friction with manufacturers and restaurants, Sundover said the company wants to work closely with them to help ensure issues like cross-contamination and mistakes don’t end up impacting consumers.

“We’re not trying to blame anyone or really be an enforcer, we’re just trying to help create that transparency,”​ he said. “Even with the Cheerios [issue], I read they weren’t aware that there had been some contaminations [until it was too late].”

“I really think most businesses like that want a product like ours to help their customers and also help their own brand. We want to help those companies get to that point.”

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