What Is Nima Gluten Sensor?

Published on: Apr 20, 2017

By taking a complicated, lab-style test and turning it into a small, portable, easy to use device, the company claims Nima Gluten Sensor can help you find out if food is really gluten-free in 2-3 minutes.

And combined with Nima’s smartphone app, you can upload your test results, add feedback on the meals you’ve had, see what others have tested, and get their advice on what’s good and which restaurants they recommend.

Nima’s one-time use capsules are ready to go anywhere; just take a small, pea-sized sample of your food (whether solid or liquid), put it inside a fresh capsule, twist the lid, and place the capsule in the Nima device.

In a couple of minutes, Nima will tell you if the sample has 20 parts per million or more of gluten with at least 99.5 percent accuracy—although the company claims internal testing has shown it can detect levels as low as 5 ppm.

Whether you’re thinking about trying a new restaurant, out with friends, traveling, or at home preparing packaged foods, it certainly seems like the Nima Gluten Sensor really could offer an extra safety net that provides “social freedom, peace of mind, and healthy eating, all in the palm of your hand.”

But are there any potential limitations to this new technology? What about the competition? There are a lot of important aspects to consider when it comes to Nima, many of which we’ll discuss here so you can make a more empowered decision.

What Is Gluten & Can It Cause Any Health Concerns?

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is an overarching term that describes specific wheat, rye, barley, and triticale proteins that help these foods maintain their shape. In a very real way, gluten is like ‘food glue.’

In about one percent of the population, a person’s body can’t properly process gluten, leading to a condition known as celiac disease. Here, the body’s immune system actually attacks the small intestine when gluten is present, leading to side effects like physical damage and insufficient nutrient absorption.

While there is some clinical evidence indicating that non-celiacs who have irritable bowel syndrome could benefit from a gluten-free diet, US News reports that “A recently published study in the journal Digestion found that 86 percent of individuals who believed they were gluten sensitive could tolerate it.”

If you’re among those who react negatively to gluten, can the Nima Sensor help you avoid it in the first place? Let’s take a look at how it works.

How Does the Nima Gluten Sensor Work?

The Nima website tells us that their Gluten Sensor was developed by a team from MIT, Stanford, Google, and Nike with three main components: the Nima Sensor, the test capsules, and the app.

Let’s briefly take a closer look at each, so we can ensure everyone is on the same page.

What Are the Technical Specifications for Nima’s Sensor?

Constructed from a combination of PC, ABS, and POM plastics, the main Nima unit is 3.5" wide, 1” high, and 3.1” deep, or, about the size of a deck of cards. Weight comes in at three ounces.

If any part gets dirty, you can wipe it down with a soft, damp cloth.

At the front of Nima’s Sensor, you’ll find an OLED display that indicates one of the following icons:

  • Smile – Less than 20 ppm of gluten was detected (Per FDA guidelines, food can only be considered gluten-free if it contains less than 20 ppm)
  • Wheat – Indicates either low or high levels of gluten were detected
  • Exclamation Point – Indeterminate results

Each Nima Sensor is powered by a 300-mAh LiPo battery, similar to what you’ll find in many smartphones and other devices. Per their website, a full charge will last between 10 and 30 tests, depending on what you’re testing (their FAQ indicates that foods with lower gluten content will take longer to test, thus using more battery power).

When it comes time to recharge, the process will take between 90 minutes and two hours.

To sync with a smartphone, Nima uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). It’s designed to be easy to use for anyone six or older, although the company recommends adult supervision for anyone 10 or under.

Nima Gluten SensorNima’s main sensor unit is what holds its proprietary capsules, which test food for gluten and display results via an OLED screen. Image credit: Nima Labs, Inc.

How Do Nima’s Capsules Detect Gluten?

Nima’s single-use, 2.5" capsules are pre-loaded with the company’s proprietary antibodies that, when combined with a finely tuned optical sensor, recognize gluten protein, which doesn’t require cleaning, resetting, or refilling. In fact, the company’s site tells us they spent more than a year developing their own antibody specifically for this test.

While Nima doesn’t provide much information beyond this, Popular Science slightly expands:

“In order to test for gluten, the Nima (like most allergen tests) detects proteins by reacting with them chemically. It uses an antibody designed to attach to the gluten protein, which can trigger a reaction that produces a visible signal like a color change to indicate whether gluten is present.”

The process works over the following steps:

First, unwrap the capsule, unscrew the top cap, and place a pea-sized amount of liquid or solid inside. Just a few examples of the foods you can test include soups, sauces, dressings, french fries, cereal, and chips.

Screw on the top cap until you feel a pop and the green ring disappears. This step grinds the food.

Next, slide the capsule into the main sensor unit until it clicks. Hold the power button for two seconds to turn it on, and press the button again when prompted to begin the test.

After waiting no more than three minutes, the results will display. Do not reopen the used capsule; instead, throw it away. Capsules are not currently recyclable.

In this short video, Nima’s co-founder and CPO, Scott Sundvor, explains the process:

Is the Nima Gluten Sensor Clinically Proven?

According to the Food Testing section of their blog, Nima has undergone two rounds of internal testing. These included:

A 2016 study where 47 “food items were evaluated using the proprietary sample preparation and the Nima proprietary antibody and assay designed specifically to work with the Nima device” by a third-party lab (not processed in the Nima Sensor itself).

These results were compared to 47 of the same food samples processed by a second third-party lab using a different assay technology, and found that very few discrepancies existed.

In a second study conducted in 2016, the Nima Sensor accurately detected gluten levels in 195 out of 200 tests performed on cornbread samples.

The website indicates that third-party validation is currently underway.

Does Nima Have Any Limitations?

In short, yes. For example, Nima can’t accurately test soy sauce, pure vinegar, beer, alcohol, or other fermented or hydrolyzed foods, since the gluten proteins are too small to detect. However, it can detect if gluten has been added to these foods.

Further, keep in mind that Nima only verifies a particular sample is gluten-free; not the entire meal. They explain this means you should use the Sensor to “help you make more informed decisions about what you choose to eat.”

Finally, Nima hasn’t been validated to test non-food items such as makeup or medication.

What Features Will You Find With Nima’s App?

After creating your own profile on Nima’s iOS or Android app, you’ll be able to upload results from your device, review restaurants and share your insight, discover new restaurants and dining options, search by location or type of cuisine, and check scores based on community test results.

You’ll also be able to record your own notes to help you remember the location, what you ate, and what your experience was like. Note: Each Nima device can only pair with one phone at a time.

Nima’s appUsing Nima’s app, you’ll be able to see local restaurants rated by other Gluten Sensor users, in addition to feedback and reviews. Image credit: Apple Corporation

Taken together, what will you pay for this technology?

How Much Does the Nima Gluten Sensor Cost?

The Nima Gluten Sensor Starter Kit includes one Nima sensor, three one-time-use test capsules, one micro-USB battery recharging cable, and one carrying pouch, priced at $279. You can also make a one-time purchase of 12 test capsules for $72.95.

For regular testers, Nima also offers several different capsule subscription options, which can be skipped or paused as you please:

  • 12 capsules per month: $59.95
  • 12 capsules every other month: $61.95
  • 24 capsules per month: $116.94

How to choose? The company recommends the first option if you dine out one or fewer times per week, travel away from home one or fewer times per month, or if you rarely test packaged foods.

The second option might be ideal if you dine out 2-3 times per week or travel away from home 1-2 times per month, while the largest quantity is for those who eat at social gatherings 4-5 times per month or dine out four or more times per week.

All products com with a 30-day refund policy, less S&H. The Nima Sensor also comes with a 90-day limited warranty against defects in materials and workmanship under normal use, either of which you can request by contacting customer service at 844-NIMA-WOW (646-2969) or support@nimasensor.com.

Are Nima’s customers reporting sufficient value at these prices?

What Did We Learn From Nima Gluten Sensor Reviews?

We located three hands-on reviews for Nima during our research, although none were in-depth.

CNET noted that the Gluten Sensor was accurate with the foods they tested, including a “piece of wheat bread [that] prompted the Nima screen to display two wheat symbols, which means it detected a high level of gluten. And a smiley face popped up when I tested a piece of orange bell pepper.” They noted they’d continue testing and write a full review soon, with no follow-up to date.

GlutenDude.com experienced a lot of hesitation about testing Nima, since they impressed upon the fact that a small, pea-sized sample of food doesn’t necessarily mean the entire dish will be gluten-free.

After voicing their concern, the company responded honestly and noted that Nima is intended to act as an extra data point, not necessarily a decision-maker.

The Popular Science article referenced earlier also mirrored this sentiment when writing, “… all you technically know is that the food you just loaded into the Nima is gluten free. The rest of your plate is still questionable.”

We only found Nima’s app on iTunes (no entry on Google Play), where five users had given it a five-star average rating. Common compliments referenced its ability to track meals and test results, although a couple didn’t necessarily like the usability.

From a company perspective, Nima (previously 6SensorLabs) is based out of San Francisco, CA and was co-founded by CEO Shireen Yates and CPO Scott Sundvor. Shireen is gluten-intolerant and even participated in many of the studies listed on Nima’s website.

Before launching their product, the Nima Gluten Sensor was a finalist in the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield 2016.

Previously, Nima worked for Google and Scott worked in Research and Product Development for companies like Johnson & Johnson.

Our Interview With Nima’s Co-Founder & CEO

We had an opportunity to ask CEO and co-founder Shireen Yates a few detailed questions via email. Here’s what we learned:

How did the idea for Nima come about?

In college, Shireen told us she found out about her severe intolerance to gluten, dairy, egg and soy, which meant she had to completely change the way she ate. But even though she was diligent about avoiding these foods, she continued getting sick from unintentional exposure.

No too long after, Shireen was at a friend’s wedding when she realized she forgot her go-to gluten-free snack pack. Trying to avoid the impending hangriness, Shireen asked a waitress passing by if the delicious-looking risotto balls were gluten-free, to which she replied, “How allergic are you?”

Tired of being asked that question, Shireen wished there was a quick and easy way to test a food sample and find out for herself if it was gluten-free. And the idea for Nima was born.

What were some of the challenges you faced when brining Nima to market?

“So many challenges!” Shireen replied. In a nutshell, though, she noted that many well-respected individuals in the community said it wasn't possible to make a portable gluten test, or to receive results in less than 10-15 minutes.

She joined forces with co-founder Scott Sundvor at MIT and brought Dr. Jingqing Zhang on as their lead scientist, both of whom also believed that it could be done. In the end, the team didn’t give up, and Shireen mentioned they’re so proud of everything achieved so far.

In layman’s terms, can you discuss how Nima’s antibodies are different?

“We developed our own proprietary antibody to be sensitive and specific to gluten at 20 parts per million (the FDA threshold for gluten-free) that can provide a result in just a few minutes (versus 10 or 15),” Shireen replied.

Once additional tests are released (including the forthcoming peanut test) for Nima, will the same sensor be used and will consumers only have to purchase different testing capsules?

According to Shireen, their goal is to have one sensor that can test for multiple allergens; you would simply swap out the capsule for each allergen.

However, she clarified that “the current sensor will likely only test for gluten, but our plan is to have the next sensor test for multiple things. In the long-term, we would also like to have a capsule that can test for multiple allergens, but right now we're focused on getting each individual capsule and chemistry out to the public.”

When will Nima’s Android app be released?

Shireen told us their team is currently developing Nima’s Android app, and “expect to begin beta and launch within the next couple months,” which could help even more people avoid gluten every day.

Outside of Nima, Are There Other Gluten Testers Available?

Searching online for “gluten food test” and “portable gluten test,” we only encountered the Hygiena Allerflow Gluten Surface Residue Test, which cost several hundred dollars. We also found multiple at-home tests for gluten intolerance, but nothing specifically for foods.

In short, if you’re looking for a portable, affordable method of testing food for gluten, Nima seems to currently be your only option. As your lone choice, then, it seems Nima lives up to the company’s claim that it’s the “fastest gluten sensor on the market.”

According to a webinar presented on Nima’s website by lead scientist Dr. Jingqing Zhang, the company plans to add a peanut sensor in the Fall 2017 using the same technology, and to eventually identify all eight of the FDA’s major allergens, including wheat, milk, peanuts, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and soybeans.

Just because Nima’s your only existing option, does this necessarily mean you should hand over nearly $300 of your hard-earned money?

Our Final Thoughts About the Nima Gluten Sensor

At nearly $300 upfront and a minimum of about $5 per capsule, the Nima Gluten Sensor could certainly be considered an investment. But if you suffer from celiac disease or acute gluten sensitivity, it might be difficult to put a price tag on peace of mind and to have its additional information at your disposal.

Just remember that, even at this price, the company only indicates a 99.5% accuracy rate for the food Nima tests, and can't guarantee that the remainder of your meal is gluten-free (often a result of cross-contamination in the preparation area).

Furthermore, Nima’s Sensor follows the FDA’s guidelines and defines gluten-free as food that contains less than 20 ppm, although some allergic individuals might react at lower levels. In fact, CEO Shireen Yates found this out firsthand when she reacted to gluten at 10ppm during the company’s internal donut testing.

Speaking of which, we’d like to thank Shireen for her responses to our questions. We think it goes a long way toward showing that Nima stands behind their product and is out to help make customers’ lives easier.

What did you think about the Nima Gluten Sensor? Was it worth the investment? Share your experience by writing a review below.

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