Credit: Nima

After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder over a year ago, I dove into researching how I could be proactive. What kinds of vitamins, foods, exercises could I take on to stave off the effects of the disease and remain a healthy thirty-something mom with a busy job and personal life? It didn’t take long to discover that things like gluten and dairy were among the top triggers of inflammation in the body. I began the process of removing them from my daily diet.

Dairy was pretty easy, although many packaged foods have hidden dairy inside. But the labels are usually clear. Even dining out wasn’t too bad – restaurants usually have several non-cheese/butter/milk options from which to choose with some exceptions (every try to order a cheese-free dish from an Italian restaurant? Don’t bother). But gluten? Trying to find totally gluten-free foods on the go is hell.

But food labeling has gotten so much better, you say. My grocery store has a whole aisle of gluten-free foods! Sure, but as most of us who avoid gluten know, it’s much more complicated than that. Gluten is a hidden ingredient, a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains that give food an elastic, dough-like consistency before cooking or baking. And even foods that don’t naturally contain gluten can have gluten on them if they are made, produced, cooked or shipped in a place with other products that contain gluten. And how can you really tell? If a label or menu say “gluten-free” – what choice do you have other than to believe them?

That’s exactly the problem the folks at Nima are trying to solve. Their flagship product – a small, portable device with insertable cartridges – looks like just another tech gadget. But the idea behind it and the problem it’s solving is pretty revolutionary. So if I’m out to eat with friends, and a dish is labeled GF, or nothing is labeled GF but the waiter assures me they can make a certain dish GF, all I have to do to be confident in this is pop a sample of my dish into the Nima cartridge. Nima can sense even tiny amounts of gluten – 20 ppm or more – in a little over 2 minutes.

At the 2016 Smart Kitchen Summit, I got to sit down with Carla Borsoi, Nima’s VP of Marketing and try out a Nima sensor. I had just finished eating lunch provided by our catering team – a grilled chicken salad and fruit. At first glance, there was no obvious source of gluten or dairy on the salad, although the chicken had a crust on it that looked like it could have been breading. I did eat it (it was the first time I had eaten all day!) but I wondered. When Carla handed me the Nima cartridge, I chose to break off a small morsel of the chicken closest to the crust and pop it in the device.

nima-at-sks

The process is incredibly simple – each device comes with a few disposable cartridges that are inserted into the machine for testing. It fits about a dime-sized portion of food, liquid or solid and contains the chemicals needed to interact with gluten and detect the protein in your food. In fact, the chemistry used is actually a proprietary antibody developed by Nima co-founders Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor. Once the cartridge is in, the device gets to work. A little over two minutes later, a little smiley face popped up, indicating no gluten present. So my lunch had been safe and GF after all. I felt pretty relieved, but also quickly recognized how powerful a device like this could be for people with food allergies and sensitivities beyond gluten.

I talked with Nima advisor and food tech VC Brian Frank about this later in the day. “What is compelling about Nima, to me, is that they’re unlocking secret world of my food, giving me information about what’s on my plate. Is it good? Do I want to eat it?” Frank explained the movement to eat gluten, dairy or soy-free foods has grown alongside a broader desire for consumers to know what’s in their foods. And the infrastructure that Nima’s developing isn’t limited to gluten.

“There’s no reason it can’t be used for dairy or peanuts and there’s nothing stopping them from going to pathogens either,” he added. In other words, if there’s something there that can be detected, it’s possible the Nima form factor could be used to detect it.

It’s not hard to see why Frank and others in the food tech space are interested in Nima and their potential. The connected world gives us access to information about so much of our lives – we can stay in touch with friends and family, keep an eye on our homes, find out about the weather outside, the traffic, the best prices on goods and services. And there’s certainly been a movement to give us better information how to eat healthily and ways to access food in easier and more convenient ways.

But the food molecular sensor market is as a whole is still in its early days and in general hasn’t always seen success. Scio, as an example, launched on Kickstarter two years ago and dazzled at TechCrunch Disrupt with its portable molecular sensor. The project raised $2.7 million in funding and promised to use IR-spectroscopy to deliver information about what was in various foods, plants and medicine. The marketing video shows a guy wandering a grocery store, scanning a variety of food products, even the leaves on a tree outside, and receiving deep molecular information about each of them. Compelling, right?

Though not entirely based on smoke and mirrors, the promise of this product almost seemed too good to be true (with a Theranos-like vision). Fast forward to 2016, the company is currently in a patent dispute and shipped its product to early backers without telling them that for it to be actually useful, they’d need to purchase a $250 developer’s kit. And then there are other issues with broad-spectrum technology like Scio, relying on a database that needs to be continually updated to be useful and trying to give information about such a wide range of things.

The Nima sensor has yet to ship, but it stands to reason that their focus on one molecule analysis at a time as opposed to a universal sensor might be a better approach. And though Nima doesn’t rely on a database to give user’s information about their food, their app does give them the ability to record the information they find out about their food in restaurants, creating a sort of Yelp reviews for food labeling accuracy and friendliness to gluten, dairy and other allergen sufferers.

Scio, Nima and other food sensors are coming to market at a time when demand for that information and healthy food alternatives are higher than ever. Analysts predict that dairy alternatives will be a $19.5 billion market by 2020 and the GF label can be found on mainstream labels across the grocery aisles, even on most Cheerios’ boxes. According to a survey from Innova Insights, 91% of consumers believe that foods with recognizable ingredients are healthier, proving that even consumers who don’t have dietary restrictions want to know more about what’s inside their food and how it will impact their health. But inserting tech into the equation to help with that can be tricky.

“Food tech is hard,” commented Frank, “You’re asking people to change or adopt new behaviors, and that’s not a small thing. Tech that scratches the right itch at the right time – that’s what drives success.” When I mentioned Nima to other gluten or dairy free friends, there was a good amount of intrigue. But the question I got asked most?

Where can I buy it?

The Nima sensor will come out later this year – and you can sign up for updates on their website. We’re hoping to get our hands on one for The Spoon – stay tuned.