Portable sensors will tell you if there is gluten in your food

A portable device to detect gluten in food
A portable device to detect gluten in food

Allergies can be a diners' worst nightmare. Between unknown sauces and secret ingredients, diners with an allergy have to be extra cautious. 6Sensor Labs' is looking to change that with their product Nima, the latest to enter the food sensing space.

Nima is a portable gluten detector. How it works: A sample of food or drink is dropped into a disposable cartridge that is then inserted into the device, and in about two minutes you get a result.

A frown or smiley face light up along the side of the device to indicate if the meal is safe to eat. It pairs with an iOS app via Bluetooth, uploading test results and allowing users to search for more information about restaurants where food may have already been tested.

For the gluten intolerant this device could be a game changer. Its estimated there are about 18 million Americans with a gluten intolerant or full blown Celiac disease.

CEO Shireen Yates is sensitive to gluten herself.

Nima, Portable Gluten Sensor
Source: 6SensorLabs

"The idea itself came to me at a wedding," said Yates, who asked the waitress if the appetizers were gluten free. "[The waitress] responded — how allergic are you? I thought, I'd really like to be able to take a sample and know.

This inspired Yates in her grad school years at MIT to create a device that was not only portable, but could generate quick results and quantify exactly how much gluten was in something.

Other products on the market have also successfully tested food, of course, including EZ Gluten, TellSpec or SCiO. TellSpec and Consumer Physic's SCiO — which are both pre-launch — share similarities in their use of spectroscopy technology, and their scan results detect more than just gluten.

What makes 6Sensor different is the technology — it uses a custom chemical process to identify gluten, rather than spectroscopy. The folks at 6Sensor believe that using a specific protein that only searches for gluten will yield more accurate results.

"We wanted to be able to detect at one part per million of a protein, to say confidently that a sample had something or not. The only way to do this is through chemistry detection," said Yates.

Spectroscopy, in this case, uses light to identify both the amount and types of chemicals present in a sample the device is pointed at. The use of this technology yields results that detect calories, fats, proteins, sugars and other components of the food. TellSpec CEO Isabel Hoffman was inspired by her daughter, who has Celiac, and says that those suffering from the disease often suffer from other health concerns like pre-diabetes and thyroid issues. This is why TellSpec focuses on scanning for more than just gluten.

"Spectroscopy lets you get molecular information about what you scan. We have detection for gluten right now and it is 97 percent accurate. Could we bring it up to the 99.8 percent accuracy that Nima is using? Yes," said TellSpec CEO Isabel Hoffman. "We're using machine learning. The more scans we have, the more information we have."

Nima, Portable Gluten Sensor
Source: 6SensorLabs

Competitor Scio focuses more on building a large database. Their goal isn't to detect gluten but to be the world's largest database for the molecular spectrum.

"Think of it as if we were all crowdsourcing together for [Google] street view. What you need to do is make sure everyone involved has an accurate GPS and working camera," said Consumer Physics CEO Dror Sharon of Scio.

The database builds as users scan items. One of the use cases could be for alcoholic drinks. The more drinks are scanned, the more accurate Scio could be at detecting levels of alcohol in a drink.

While gluten detection is the starting point, 6SensorLabs also plans to launch peanut and dairy detection in 2017. The product lends itself to the possibility of finding proteins like the ones that identify e.coli for example, a new concern on the heels of Chipotle's recent outbreaks.

Pre-orders began October 20th. The device is currently priced at $199 for the starter kit and $247 for a starter kit which includes a 12 pack of capsules.The company is set to begin shipping Nima in mid 2016.