Is your meal really gluten free? The editorial of MIT NEWS

Portable sensor detects trace amounts of gluten in food at restaurants

For people with celiac disease or gluten intolerances, dining out can be stressful. Even trace amounts of the protein — found in wheat, barley, and rye — in a whole plate of food can cause adverse reactions.

Now MIT spinout Nima — co-founded by CEO Shireen Yates MBA ’13 and Chief Product Officer Scott Sundvor ’12 — has developed a portable, highly sensitive gluten sensor that lets diners know if their food is, indeed, safe to eat.

According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that leads to intestinal damage when gluten is eaten, affects around 1 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 3 million people. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, millions more may suffer from nonceliac gluten intolerances.

Nima’s sensor, also called Nima, is a 3-inch-tall triangular device with disposable capsules. Diners put a sample of food — about the size of a pea — or liquid into the capsule, screw on the top, and insert the capsule into the device, which mixes the food into a solution that detects gluten. In two to three minutes, a digital display appears on the sensor, indicating if the food sample does or doesn’t contain gluten.

Every time someone runs a test, the result is automatically sent to an app Nima has developed. The diner can enter information about where and what they ate, and whether the food contained gluten. Any Nima user can log in to see the results.

The aim is to create “a peace of mind at mealtime,” Sundvor says. By amassing data on food, he adds, the startup hopes to provide people with better information about what they eat. “Right now, we don’t know what’s in our food, whether it is allergens, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals,” he says. “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.”

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