Gluten intolerance and celiac disease can be difficult to manage, especially when consuming food prepared outside the home. Since even small amounts of the protein can trigger serious reactions, how can someone be sure a menu item really is “gluten-free”?
Enter the Nima – a small but highly-sensitive device capable of detecting trace amounts of gluten in food. Nima was developed by MIT graduates Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor, who are the CEO and Chief Product Officer for the company, respectively.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which a patient suffers intestinal damage when gluten protein is eaten. The disease affects about 3 million people in the US, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Millions more are thought to suffer from other types of gluten intolerance, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
The three-inch-tall Nima device utilizes disposable capsules, into which individuals can insert a small amount of food or liquid. Once inserted into the Nima, the food-filled capsule comes in contact with a proprietary solution containing gluten-detecting antibodies.
In just over two minutes, the digital display indicates whether the food tested does or does not contain gluten. The results are automatically sent to a Nima app which allows users to enter additional information – such as where they ate, what dish was tested and whether it contained gluten – that is publicly available to all Nima users.
“Right now, we don’t know what’s in our food, whether it is allergens, pesticides, or other harmful chemicals,” Sundvor told MIT News. “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.”
As the maximum concentration of gluten allowable by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for “gluten-free” foods is 20 parts per million (ppm), Nima can detect the protein at this concentration. Nima owes its high level of sensitivity to the immunoassay developed primarily by the company’s lead scientist and MIT alumnus, Dr. Jingqing Zhang.
At the core of Nima’s immunoassay technology are custom antibodies capable of detecting miniscule amounts of gluten in a sample. Once the antibodies bind to a gluten molecule, it triggers a colorimetric reaction which can then be detected by an optical reader.
Nima’s simplified display allows diners to make quick choices about whether or not a dish is safe to eat. A “gluten found” message is displayed if any gluten is detected by the device, otherwise the sensor will display a smiley face indicating that the food contains less than 20 ppm of the protein.
Even foods designed to be gluten-free can contain trace amounts of gluten, particularly if they come in contact with surfaces contaminated with the allergen. “It’s the equivalent to finding a breadcrumb in an entire plate of food,” said Sundvor.