The Nima Gluten Sensor has recently launched in Europe. The gadget is a triangular device linked to your smartphone which samples food and gives either a smiley face or wheat symbol dependant on the gluten content.
The gluten geek & technology-lover inside of me should be overjoyed – it seems to be an elegant, technologically enabled piece of science; and is marketed by it’s European seller, Allergy Lab Kopenhagen (ALK), as bringing “peace of mind” for gluten intolerant people. “you’ll be able to instantly know whether your food is safe for you to eat”, reads their website, with “96.9% accuracy”.
But actually, it’s not useful
Sadly, the truth is rather less simple. What this device does actually is not useful to a coeliac looking to understand if a dish is safe or not.
I do not dispute the sterling science and design that have gone into the gadget. Independent tests show that it does what it says it does – namely test a small sample of food for the presence of gluten with a pretty good degree of accuracy, especially at higher levels – it’s how this data is interpreted by the device, and it’s users, as guided by the marketing.
You might assume from the description that this is a simple way to get peace of mind about what you eat, especially when out. But the device cannot tell you if a meal is safe for a coeliac. It doesn’t give you what you need.
To do that it must be able to tell you:
- Whether any part of any meal contains gluten…
- …at a level that is unsafe for someone with coeliac disease…
It fails all of these requirements.
Only a small part of the meal is sampled – so it only works if gluten is evenly distributed in the dish
The test uses a pea-sized amount of food in the single-use capsule (at £5 per capsule). As anyone who’s ever been glutened by chips cooked in a shared fryer, or by croutons picked off of a salad might tell you – gluten isn’t always evenly distributed in a dish. All of Nima’s own test data is artificial as they test it with gluten ‘spiked’ evenly through a dish. In your real life scenario you could test the chips for safety, but then get glutened by the burger.
I would not want to rely on this sensor, it’s like testing the corner of a minefield and then declaring it safe to cross because you didn’t find any mines
— Gluten Free Al (@GlutenFree_AL) November 3, 2018
It doesn’t work on all gluten-containing foods
Nima’s own data shows that some processed forms of gluten (such as fermented foods) are not picked up by the sensor – soya sauce being a notable example (and one of the most common causes of concern for coeliacs eating out).
The sensor does not tell you how much gluten was found
This is important, because the legally defined limit for gluten free food is less than 20ppm – based on scientific consensus about what is safe for most people with coeliac to consume. The ‘wheat’ symbol denoting ‘gluten found’ can be tripped at as low as 5ppm (although ‘sporadically’ to use Nima’s own words), causing unnecessary concern. Some legally gluten free products which people with coeliac enjoy safely, may trip this limit.
The independent data shows it is not as accurate as claimed
An independent scientific review of the Nima device concluded that the device was useful “if properly used on foods with reasonably uniform gluten distribution” but that it “perform(ed) poorly in detection of the critical 20 ppm on certain categories of foods”. The review recommended multiple samples to improve the results.
The “96.9% accuracy” quoted on ALK’s website only applied to certain categories of food, and in fact the detail of the data on the device shows a few more concerning nuggets:
- The Journal of Food Protection review also found that how food (pasta) was prepared impacted the sensor’s reliability at the critical 20ppm level, something also shown in Nima’s own data (fluffy bread was less reliably tested than scrunched up dense bread)
- The review also showed that gluten was detected accurately at 20ppm only 79.5% of the time. To put that another way – 1 in 5 of your tests could tell you something was safe that wasn’t.
- The device is also prone to ‘false positives’ – it may tell you there is gluten when there is none. Nima’s own data showed this happened nearly 10% of the time.
Accuracy is a rather large problem. See table. pic.twitter.com/4rEgs8SvTP
— GlutenFreeWatchdog (@GFWatchdog) November 4, 2018
Even if it did work – when would you use it?
If I had a Nima Sensor, after a little bit of initial fun of testing things around my house to get a smiley face, I’d wonder how to use my expensive little capsules.
- No point testing the certified gluten free products, or restaurants I feel confident in based on past experience.
- No point testing something I can obviously see contains gluten.
- If I am so concerned that a restaurant will not prepare my food safely, would I eat there anyway? If I’m genuinely concerned the dish has gluten, do I trust the success rates of the device, or just order something else?
- If I’m too polite or anxious to make a point of being gluten free to the waiter, am I not also too anxious to do a test in front of the staff, or indeed make a scene by not eating something, or challenging staff about food that tests positive for gluten?
I’m struggling to see many occasions on which this ‘extra data point’ would be useful.
Can you even afford it?
I’ll let fellow blogger, Mrs D make the point on this one:
£190 for the device and then £5 EACH ONE TIME you want to test. To get an unreliable result. Please save your money! We have good legislation and controls in the UK. The risk vs cost of the device does not make sense.
— Mrs D (@GlutenFreeMrsD) November 3, 2018
Why am I so cross about this?
There’s nothing that gets my back up like covert or less-than-clean marketing and PR tactics. ALK are using the same PR tactics for their launch as the American parent company for Nima. Rather than relying on expert scientific testimonial from qualified individuals to sell their product; they are employing bloggers and social media influencers to ‘test’ the device, and work on their stand at the Allergy Show. No doubt blog posts, tweets and Instagram reviews will soon follow; lending a veneer of credibility to the device among the coeliac and gluten free communities who follow them, through neutral “this is interesting, what do you think?” style posts that claim to be balanced.
The problem with this approach is that a ‘user’ of a device like this is only qualified to comment on its usability. Testing something you know has gluten and getting the wheat icon doesn’t mean it ‘works’ in a real scenario. A regular user can’t tell you if the device is accurate, or indeed fit for the purpose which it is sold. Only scientific data and tests of known quantities of gluten can. Of course, we’re bored of experts, right? Like other ‘bad science’ outfits such as intolerance tests, Nima knows this, and markets itself based on user testimonials, with just enough science to convince (or bamboozle).
All I can say is that I am disappointed in the bloggers who have accepted payment to promote this device, in light of its failings.
Why should we be worried?
For all the talk of ‘gluten intolerance’ rather than coeliac in the marketing, it’s clear that the target market is people like us – people who need to be worried enough about their diet to spend a chunk of money on a device to insure against less-than-scrupulous restaurant staff.
It may lull these users with serious gluten-related medical conditions into a false sense of security, then cause them to eat something that makes them ill. If Nima follows this launch with their new Peanut Sensor for those with allergies, it is even more worrying.
More likely, though, the device will create ‘false positives’ for gluten – creating more fear and mistrust between food producers and their customers, which I’ve never seen result in more choice and sympathy for our condition, only an increase in disclaimers and precautionary ‘may contain’ labelling on packaging.
This follows the flawed Nima-based restaurant research which suggested 1 in 3 GF meals weren’t. I worry where we’re going here. I fear confusion, and industry harm. https://t.co/sTtCAWsg1u
— Alex Gazzola (@HealthJourno) November 3, 2018
My take: if you are anxious enough about eating to be interested in this device, then you are probably also concerned enough about the problems with the device to not buy it.
As usual, I am always open to discussion and new points of view on the topics I raise on this blog. Twitter is the best place to catch me.