Engineers Target Gluten-Free Meals
Tanya Trofimencoff posted on July 23, 2016 |
Portable sensor detects trace amounts of gluten in food at restaurants.
Nima sensor detects gluten content in food within three minutes. (Image courtesy of Nima/MIT.)
Nima sensor detects gluten content in food within three minutes. (Image courtesy of Nima/MIT.)

“Want to join us for dinner?”

Celiac-suffers are often forced to answer “no” to prevent an awfully painful attack to their digestive system. Some restaurants claim to cook “gluten-free” meals but use cookware that was previously used to prepare meals full of gluten. What are the gluten-intolerant to do in such cases?

Fortunately, MIT researchers have developed a gluten detector called Nima that can determine if there is as little as 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in food. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, any food or beverage containing 20ppm of gluten or less is considered gluten-free.

Using these parameters, Nima displays a smiley or sad face for the owner to have a guarantee that their food is acceptably gluten-free.

A Portable Gluten Detector

To determine the amount of gluten in a given meal or beverage, pea-sized samples are placed in the Nima sensor's disposable capsule. The user then screws on the top and inserts the capsule into the device. The food mixes into a solution that can detect gluten. In just two or three minutes, the hungry or thirsty person will know if they can eat or drink what has been offered.

Immunoassay components: black signifies antibodies, green signifies the substance analyzed and yellow signifies the detector.
Immunoassay components: black signifies antibodies, green signifies the substance analyzed and yellow signifies the detector.

The solution is an immunoassay containing antibodies highly sensitive to gluten molecules. The antibodies bond to gluten and change the color of the immunoassay. The color change is captured by an optical reader and allows the sensor to display whether gluten content is acceptable or not with a smile or a frown.

There is also an app developed that sends test results automatically to record information about where and what users ate and whether the food contained gluten. That way, repeating the test when the diner returns may not be necessary, unless the restaurant decides to cook their food differently.

“Right now, we don't know what’s in our food, whether it is allergens, pesticides or other harmful chemicals,” said Nima chief product officer 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.”

Future Possibilities for Portable Allergen Detectors

According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease affects around 1 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 3 million people. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates there are millions more suffering from non-celiac gluten intolerances.

For next year, the company’s goal is to develop Nima further to detect other allergens such as dairy or peanuts.

Several restaurants in San Francisco are presently working with Nima to validate gluten-free menu items. This device may provide a whole new freedom for those suffering from mild to severe allergies.

“A lot of people are getting sick from dairy allergies, so that will be a big market,” said Sundvor.

For more information, visit the Nima website.

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