We Tested Peanut and Gluten Sensors Designed for People With Tricky Food Allergies

Nima has two allergen sensors. One for gluten (teal), and one for peanuts (purple).
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

Eating out with food allergies can be a minor annoyance, or if you’re unlucky, a potentially fatal booby trap. Although most restaurant and take-out menus will have labels for common allergens, the same can’t be said for that banana bread your coworker made, menus while traveling abroad, or unhinged in-laws sneaking deadly mushroom powder into your food. Let’s face it—you can tell Aunt Karen peanuts will send you into anaphylactic shock ‘til the world descends into nuclear winter, doesn’t mean she’ll listen the next time she makes her famous brownies with nuts.

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Nima Allergy Sensors are meant to help take the guesswork out of eating food you don’t prepare yourself. The way it works is you take a pea-sized amount of food, stick it in a one-time use capsule, and then plug it into a triangular sensor. The sensor then grinds up the food, mixes it with some chemicals, and then you wait about five minutes. If it tests positive for peanuts or gluten, you’ll see a symbol of a peanut or wheat chaff. If your dish tests negative, you’ll see a little smiley face. (To clarify, there’s a separate sensor for each allergen; one sensor can’t test for both.)

But at $230 per sensor, and $60 for 12 capsules, Nima isn’t a cheap system. Still, $290 is less terrible than getting rushed to the hospital and less costly than an EpiPen, which thanks to our garbage healthcare system can cost $600 without insurance for a set of two injectors (or around $350 on average for the generic version). There are ways to get EpiPens or generic equivalents for cheaper, but moral outrage aside, it might make sense to shell out for a portable at-home sensor for some peace of mind.

To test the sensors, I picked up Keebler Toast & Peanut Butter sandwich crackers, some gluten-free lentil chips, milk chocolate M&Ms (which come with a “May Contain Peanuts” warning), and some Thai takeout that did and didn’t list peanuts in its ingredient list. In the case of the Keebler crackers, both sensors correctly detected peanut and gluten. As expected, the lentil chips also tested negative for gluten—so I guess it earned its gluten-free marketing.

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The sensors did not detect trace levels of peanuts. The bag for the lentil chips noted they were manufactured in a facility that handled nuts, though it also stated the facility was regularly cleaned using FDA-approved methods. Reassuringly, I got a negative result for peanuts. The sensor was also unable to detect any peanuts in the M&Ms (though, this is not an endorsement saying all milk chocolate M&Ms are peanut-free).

The Thai takeout delivered some interesting results. I ordered some Pad Thai, which generally includes peanuts and rice noodles. At this particular restaurant, the peanuts were itty bitty and not visible. Meanwhile, rice noodles should be gluten-free, but some brands sneakily add wheat flour. I also picked up some Roti Canai, a type of flatbread with a curry dipping sauce.

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Both Nima sensors correctly detected my peanut butter toast had gluten and peanut. Hooray.
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

The Pad Thai tested as expected—negative for gluten, and positive for peanuts. That was impressive considering I had a hard time finding a sizable amount of peanut in the dish. However, while I expected the Roti Canai to test positive for gluten, I was surprised to see it tested positive for peanuts—an ingredient not listed on the menu. It’s probably a result of the restaurant re-using cooking equipment, but it shows that sometimes asking your waiter and scrutinizing menus can’t account for human error.tall

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However, here’s the part of the review where I stick a giant flashing disclaimer. While my tests were anecdotally accurate, I wasn’t testing under strict clinical conditions and had a limited number of capsules to work with. That’s to say, please don’t take my results and think Nima’s sensors are 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time. Regarding accuracy, Nima claims it can test for 20 parts per million for gluten—the FDA standard for gluten-free advertising. It also says it tests for traces of peanut of 10ppm, which it cites is the lowest adverse reaction level in clinical research.

As far as Nima’s scientific bonafides go, the information on the company’s site is compelling. The sensors were developed at MIT by people who have food allergies. The company has had two studies published in journals regarding the sensors’ efficacy. Nima also counts scientists from Columbia University, Stanford, Massachusetts General, and Mayo Clinic among its advisory board. All this looks good on paper, but because I’m no scientist, I spoke with Dr. Leonard Bielory, an allergist and immunologist who teaches at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University.

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I needed to use the hand crank to close the capsules properly.
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

“This is more in the line of prevention,” Bielory said over the phone. “It appears to be quite good, but in the real world, I have no idea. I always tell people, you study a medication or study a device like this, how efficacious is this in the study? If you put it into the real world, how compliant is it if you use it four times a day?”

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He pointed out it had not been tested as a piece of durable medical equipment, meaning there’s no way to tell if the Nima sensors will be just as accurate if you, say, pack it in your checked luggage and it experiences subzero temperatures during a flight. Or, if like me, you’ve got butterfingers and happen to drop the sensor.

I asked Dr. Bielory if he would recommend a Nima sensor to a patient. “I personally wouldn’t because I don’t know its real-life use. But it’s an interesting device,” he said. He later clarified that ultimately, a device like Nima is up to a consumer. “How much more protection are you getting from this?” This isn’t to say the Nima is wholly unreliable. It’s more like the safest way to use Nima is as a method of double-checking. You should still alert waiters to food sensitivities or allergies, and keep a sharp eye out for ingredients. When in doubt, don’t eat something if you’re not sure it’s safe. It’s like this: If you buy the Nima sensor and it tests negative for an allergen—that’s not to say you’re completely safe. But if it tests positive, you should probably pass on whatever it was you were about to eat.

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The Nima Sensors worked reliably enough that I’d feel confident passing on food that tested positive for allergens.
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

I reached out to Nima with Dr. Bielory’s concerns. A spokesperson confirmed that Nima is not a medical device, but that the company had “prioritized thoroughly testing the product by third parties.” It also emphasized it chose its journals as they are “the leading journals for sharing findings in food diagnostics, which is most relevant and appropriate for the application of Nima.”

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The company provided us with a quote from Dr. Stephen Taylor, founder of the Food Allergen Research and Resource Program, which conducted the third-party validation study: “The major testing of a device IS absolutely the responsibility of the company that is distributing it FARRP was tasked with conducting an independent assessment of Nima’s advertising claims both during the development of the device and during our evaluation project (which has been published). The good news is that it does work.”


Dr. Taylor’s comments go on to note that Nima is not a medical device and therefore does not fall under the same regulations or durability testing. However, he did give points to Nima for opting to go through validation testing, as it’s technically not required of a non-medical device.

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Accuracy aside, one advantage to buying the sensors is Nima’s companion app. In it, you can access your previous test results, and also search a map of restaurants where other Nima users have tested foods. The results are fairly limited in New York City, probably because I don’t imagine a ton of people have the sensors and perhaps not everyone who does has paired it with the app. On the other hand, I now know that the Al Pastor Taco at Tacombi on 24th street doesn’t have gluten in it. Besides a limited network, the only real issue I had with the app was I couldn’t pair both my peanut and gluten sensors at the same time. That’s probably only an issue for the unfortunate few who have sensitivities to both, however.

There are some other limitations with the Nima sensors. For instance, Nima says it can’t test fermented foods like soy sauce—which has gluten—or pure turmeric, sesame, nightshades, and a few other foods. I also found the Nima had a bit of a learning curve when it came to using it properly. It took about four tests for me to feel like I was confident I’d screwed the caps on the right way and knew what I was doing.

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Dexterity was another issue I had. The way the capsules work, you need a certain level of finger strength to close the caps tightly. In practice, I found it difficult to close the caps with just my hands, especially for harder foods like chips or crackers. Nima provided a small crank attachment, which helped, but I could still see it being less than ideal for anyone with limited mobility.

The sensor is small enough to fit in your palm, but adding the crank and capsules means you’ll probably need a bag to port it around.
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)
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In another, annoyance in my testing, two capsules out of 16 resulted in non-conclusive errors. That’s frustrating as each costs $5 and can’t be reused. To be safe, you’d probably want to carry at least two capsules, just in case one delivers a botched result. If you factor that in, it’s suddenly slightly less portable to lug around a sensor, two capsules, and hand crank in your bag.

It’s also kind of awkward to whip out the sensor at a restaurant, pick a tiny bit of food, and stuff it in a capsule. The sensor also makes an audible grinding noise as it works, which again, you could view as a conversation starter or as a horribly awkward “Don’t mind me, I just want to know if my food is going to kill me” distraction. It also takes the sensor about five minutes to do its thing, so that’s five minutes of waiting around, not touching your food, hoping you don’t need to have an uncomfortable talk with your waiter. It might be worth it if you’re severely allergic, but the test isn’t as instantaneous as you might think.

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Whether you find the Nima sensor is worth its $290 price tag probably depends on how severe your food allergy is, and how much reassurance you need. Also, if you’re doing your due diligence—asking waiters, scrutinizing menus, letting friends and family know your food allergies beforehand—you’ll probably only end up using the Nima sensor the few times a year when you’re unsure if you can trust your regular methods. For instance, I could see the sensors being helpful if you frequently travel abroad and don’t speak the local tongue, as many countries may not require the same allergy labeling on menus. Really, the question is if you find an extra method of double-checking your food relieves allergy-related anxiety. Otherwise, common sense should do you just fine.

README

  • Portable sensors for gluten and peanut. You smush a small food sample into a capsule, wait five minutes, and it’ll tell you if allergens are present.
  • $230 for the sensor and $60 for 12 capsules. To start, you’ll need to spend $290. Somehow still cheaper than EpiPens and an ER trip.
  • App contains a searchable map of restaurants and dishes.
  • Hard to close capsules without the crank. Sometimes result in errors.
  • Somewhat awkward stuffing pieces of food into capsules at restaurants. Also weird listening to it grind up food while you wait for results. Better than dying.
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About the author

Victoria Song

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.