Restaurant menus usually include at least one or two gluten free meal options, but it's possible for ingredients to pick up tiny amounts of the protein during production or cooking. For those that suffer from conditions such as celiac disease, even small traces could cause big health problems. A new device is aiming to make life a little easier for those people, providing a quick and easy method for testing that meals really are 100 percent gluten free in just a few minutes.
The idea of a device that can quickly check food for a particular ingredient isn't new. In the past, we've seen attachments designed to turn smartphones into allergen sensors, and even a handheld sensor that uses a low-powered laser to pick out what's in food.
The new device, known as the Nima, is made by an MIT spinout of the same name. It's just 3 in (7.6 cm) tall and features a triangular design. It makes use of small disposable capsule, into which the user places a pea-sized sample of food or drink, before sliding it into the device. Two to three minutes later, the display will indicate whether any gluten is present.
Considering that an estimated three million people have celiac disease in the US alone, such a device could have a pretty big audience. The autoimmune disorder can lead to intestinal damage, meaning that sufferers have to be constantly aware of what they're eating.
The sensor is able to pick out gluten in quantities of 20 parts per million, and up. To do so, it makes use of a biochemical test called an immunoassay, which uses antibodies sensitive to gluten. When gluten molecules are present, the antibodies bond with them, causing a change in color. An optical reader then picks up the change, and a "gluten found" message is displayed to the user.
The system also lets users keep track of their results, each of which is automatically synced with the Nima smartphone app. Opening up the app, users can input information about what they ate, and entries can be seen by other Nima users, giving them tips on where to go for truly gluten-free meals.
For Nima, the gluten sensor is just the beginning, with plans to release two similar devices in 2017, designed to detect peanuts and dairy. The company is also keen to get restaurants using the gluten sensor to validate their gluten-free menu items. A couple of establishments in San Francisco are already trying out the tech.
"Right now, we don't know what's in our food, whether it is allergens, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals," said Nima's Scott Sundvor. "There's not a good way to get that data. We want to give people the ability to understand their food better and how it affects their health."