For the estimated 18 million people in the U.S. who suffer from a sensitivity to gluten, eating out is a big risk. For those who are intolerant or have full-blown Celiac disease, it's not always easy to gauge whether a meal contains a trace amount of gluten, like a sprinkling of flour.
I have lived with a gluten allergy for close to a decade. Some servers are hyper vigilant, while others aren't clear about what gluten is. Even more concerning, as was evident this week when General Mills recalled 1.8 million boxes of "gluten-free" cheerios, is that the information on the back of the box isn't always trustworthy.
Shireen Yates, a former Google employee, has experienced similar challenges with dining out. Yates, who is sensitive to gluten, spent years interrogating wait-staff and bringing snack packs to weddings. But during her studies at business school, Yates started researching whether advanced sensor-based technology could help her determine which food was safe to eat.
Yates recruited mechanical engineer Scott Sundvor and nanotechnology expert Dr. Jingqing Zhang to start a business dedicated to helping people with food sensitivities. The goal for their company, called 6SensorLabs, is to develop a discreet test to determine whether gluten, peanuts or dairy is present in food.
The San Francisco-based team initially focused their efforts on detecting gluten. They spent several years in the lab developing a small, nondescript device called the Nima, which is available for limited pre-orders this week. The retail price is $249, which includes a reusable sensor and three test capsules, but the company is offering a discount to its early users.
Over lunch in San Francisco's Mission District, Yates gave me a demonstration of how Nima works by taking a sample from my veggie burger, ordered without a bun.
Yates pulled out the Nima from her pocket, placed a tiny bite of food in the capsule, and waited. A few minutes later, a green smiley face appeared on the device to indicate that no traces of gluten were found. Phew! I immediately felt reassured and dug in.
The experience of using Nima was relatively easy and painless, but it did draw attention to us from nearby tables. I wondered whether it would be considered bizarre behavior outside of hipster technology hubs, like Brooklyn or San Francisco. Yates said she's tried the device in restaurants all over the country and has received some questioning but no backlash.
Can You Trust Food-Scanning Technology?
Nima may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but it isn't even the first device of its kind to hit the market.
A product called the SCiO claims to use near-infrared spectroscopy to analyze the molecular breakdown of your food. It used a similar method as a rival product, TellSpec. While these products garnered quite a bit of hype in the press last year, some experts questioned the methodology and the accuracy of the results.
As Yates explained, Nima's method is different than these competitors. Rather than using spectroscopy, 6SensorLabs relies on a chemistry-based approach. The lab spent a year developing a custom antibody, which can specifically recognize a single target -- in this case, gluten.
"This is actually a tried and true technology," said Ryan Bethencourt, a venture partner at IndieBio, an accelerator program for biology startups. As Bethencourt explained, antibodies from our immune system are very specific and react to certain proteins. For twenty years, labs have used similar technology to detect immune responses in the body, but not necessarily for finding proteins in food.
Bethencourt said the "catch" is that 6SensorLabs would need to develop an antibody for every specific protein. This may work well for gluten, but it's far more complex for peanuts. A person may be allergic to a specific protein within a peanut, but not know which one.
Food safety expert Ben Chapman, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, told me that he is more concerned about "false positive and false negative rates" for these kind of food-detection tests. A person with Celiac Disease, who is highly sensitive to gluten, may be lured into a false sense of security that the food is safe.
"The unit might be finicky," said Chapman. "And there are so many variables that need to be controlled in a restaurant." One in particular is that the standard plate might contain some ingredients with gluten, and others without. The test might easily miss picking up on this, as it only tests a tiny sample.
Yates said her company has been "careful with messaging" the device. The team does not intend for it to be used as any kind of diagnostic test, which would require regulatory approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Instead, she stresses that the company is in the business of providing "more data around food," which is sorely lacking.
Next year, the company plans to release an app for people to upload and share their test results. The goal is to create a database of sorts, which users can search before selecting a restaurant. 6SensorLabs is also looking into detecting the presence of certain kinds of bacteria, which may cause people to get sick, as well as pesticides.
Of the devices on the market, 6Sensor Labs claims to have the approach that is most sensitive. It may be the best of the bunch, but I hope it's used as a guide rather than as a definitive source of truth for people with life-threatening allergies.
"I look at Nima, and other sensing devices, as increasing my odds of having a good meal and giving me more information about that restaurant or product," said Brian Frank, a San Francisco-based food-technology investor with a fund called Feed the World.
"Once you give consumers more information, they can make more informed decisions to eat or stay away from products."
Would you use a device like this to scan your food? Share your feedback with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.