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Portable sensor detects trace amounts of gluten in food

06 July 2016

MIT spinout Nima has developed a portable, highly sensitive gluten sensor that lets diners know if their food is, indeed, safe to eat.

To use the Nima sensor diners put a pea-sized sample of food or liquid into a disposable capsule, and insert the capsule into the device, which mixes the food into a solution that detects gluten. Courtesy of Nima (edited by MIT News)

Nima’s sensor, also called Nima, is a 3in 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.”

Sensitive sensor

Nima can sense gluten at 20 parts per million (ppm) or more, the maximum concentration for “gluten-free” foods as determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Nima’s high sensitivity comes from the immunoassay inside the sensor, developed primarily by MIT chemical engineering alumnus Jingqing Zhang SM ’12, PhD ’13, who is now the lead scientist at Nima. The immunoassay contains custom antibodies that are highly sensitive to gluten molecules. When gluten is present, the antibody bonds to the gluten molecules, causing a colour change in the immunoassay, which is captured by an optical reader. If any gluten is detected, the sensor will display an icon with a “gluten found” message. If the sample has less than 20 ppm of gluten, the sensor will display a smiley face.

Nima can detect gluten in foods that are labelled as “gluten-free” but may have picked up microscopic amounts of the protein during the production or cooking process. A steak may have been fried on the same grill as gluten-based foods, for example, or a salad dressing may contain trace amounts of wheat flour. The device can even detect if someone touched a piece of bread that contained gluten, before handling the food in question. “It’s the equivalent to finding a breadcrumb in an entire plate of food,” Sundvor says.

Moreover, Sundvor says, the device seamlessly integrates that chemistry with electronics and mechanics. “We’ve created this grinding, mixing, and extracting system, and together it works really well,” he says.

New opportunities

Consumers are the startup’s first market. But as more individuals start using Nima, restaurants will have more data on their food to better serve patrons, Sundvor says. A couple of restaurants in San Francisco, in fact, are working with Nima on validating their gluten-free menu items.

Next year, Nima plans to release two new sensors, one for peanuts and one for dairy, which is “surprisingly sneaky,” Sundvor says. Bread at a restaurant, for instance, could have been fried in a pan with remnants of butter. “A lot of people are getting sick from dairy allergies, so that will be a big market,” Sundvor says.


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