Nima, makers of the the handheld Gluten Sensor for food, came under fire last Thursday when Gluten Free Watchdog published a story saying it could not recommend the product. Over the weekend, Nima posted its response disputing Gluten Free Watchdog’s claims.

Both sides get pretty into the weeds with scientific data and numbers and parts per million in their arguments. We aren’t here to judge the merits of either party’s argument, but bring it up because this could impact Nima as a business, and since Nima is one of the first companies with such a handheld sensor, the evolution of the consumer food testing industry.

Nima makes two different food sensors: one that detects gluten and one that detects peanuts (which was just made generally available last week). Each sensor has a small, handheld electronic device and a cartridge. Consumers break off a piece of food they want to test, place it in the cartridge, and put the cartridge inside the sensor, which comes back saying whether or not it detected the allergen.

Accuracy is critical to the success of Nima’s products, and for the company, which has raised $13.2 million in venture funding. Nima’s sensors aren’t cheap ($289 for the Gluten starter kit, $72 for a dozen test capsules), and consumers spending that kind of money on either of the Nimas sensors must feel confident in the results in order to avoid potentially life-threatening food allergens.

Gluten Free Watchdog has been testing the Nima sensor in various scenarios for well over a year. Scanning through the site, it seems as though author Tricia Thompson has been skeptical of the Nima’s ability to fully test for the presence of gluten in real world, heterogeneous scenarios. From their September 6 post titled “Gluten Free Watchdog’s Updated Position Statement on the Nima Sensor for Gluten” (emphasis theirs):

At Gluten Free Watchdog we are not able to recommend the Nima Sensor consumer testing gadget* for gluten. Third party testing data released yesterday by Nima Labs has further solidified our position. This testing data confirmed what we’ve noted in our own testing with this gadget. There is no way to know whether a smiley face test result from the Nima Sensor is a true negative in terms of the gluten-free labeling rule (gluten below 20 ppm) or a false negative (gluten at or above 20 ppm). And there is no way to know the level of gluten in a sample that resulted in a gluten found result.

The post goes on to say:

Why is this a problem? At a level of gluten in a sample from less than 2 ppm up to a level of gluten between 30 ppm and 40 ppm, the result displayed on the Nima Sensor may be either smiley face or gluten found. If a sample is tested with a Nima Sensor and the result is a smiley face, there is no practical way for a consumer to know if the level of gluten in the sample is less than or more than 20 ppm. If a sample is tested with a Nima Sensor and the result is gluten found, there is no practical way for a consumer to know if the level of gluten in the sample is less than or more than 20 ppm. As a result, the data point received from the Nima Sensor for gluten presents major interpretation problems.

On September 8, the Nima Co-founder and CEO, Shireen Yates, published this as part of a blog post titled “Response to Recommendations Against the Nima Gluten Sensor by Gluten Free Watchdog (GFWD)” (emphasis theirs):

Gluten Free Watchdog’s view of our recently published validation is incomplete and misleading.

Here’s why:

  • All the studies show Nima is highly sensitive across a range of both low and high levels of gluten.
  • The Nima third party data accurately reported gluten found at 20 ppm and above between 93.3% for food as prepared (a food item that is spiked with an intended quantity of gluten) and 97.2% for food as quantified by an ELISA lab kit (used to determine the exact ppm of gluten in the food).
  • The Nima peer reviewed study published in the Food Chemistry Journal reported gluten found at 20 ppm and above at 96.9% accuracy.
  • The statement that, “Nima will fail to detect gluten at 20 ppm 20% of the time” is almost entirely driven by 1 specific food out of 13 tested. That sample, when quantified, was actually below 20 ppm.
  • In real life, people get glutened at many different ppm levels, not just 20 ppm. Nima has been shown to detect gluten at levels below, at and above 20 ppm across a variety of foods in a number of studies.

It goes on to conclude:

The purpose of the Nima Gluten Sensor is to provide another layer of information in your decision making process. It’s meant to give you information beyond best intentions of the person cooking the food, beyond conversations with waitstaff, beyond menu labeling, and beyond hard to understand food packaging. Ultimately, nothing is 100% guaranteed. All we can do is continue to work together to have an open dialogue. Our mission is to serve and empower you with the data to make more informed choices and live your healthiest life. If you are looking to continue the conversation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us through support@nimasensor.com.

We reached out to both parties. Nima pointed us to its blog post, and we have yet to hear back from Gluten Free Watchdog. We will update this post as we hear back with any further information.

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