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The Nima Sensor: A Portable Gluten Testing Device

Beyond Celiac shares everything you need to know about the pros and cons of the Nima device.

Many people in the Beyond Celiac community are asking about the Nima device. Nima is a device that is the first of its kind. It is a small, portable device that can be used to test foods for gluten. While this device is an innovation in the field, the decision of when and how to use the Nima is a complicated one.

To summarize all of the information below:

The Nima Sensor can be a great tool to have in your arsenal when eating away from home. However, the Nima will not replace the need to ask questions, examine ingredients and understand preparation practices and make tough decisions. It is not a quick fix and whether or not any one sample is an accurate reflection of gluten in your dish depends on many factors, some within your control and some outside of your control.

The most important thing to understand about the Nima, in our opinion, is the fact that the Nima device may show “gluten found” if trace amounts, sometimes BELOW 20 parts per million (ppm), are found. This means that a restaurant, or manufacturer, or family member, might be doing exactly the right things, and the Nima might still show a positive reading. (Less than 20 ppm is the teeny amount of gluten deemed safe for people with celiac disease by top researchers in the field and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Read more about what this means here.)

Another important factor: When trying to understand the risks we take when we eat out, we don’t know how much gluten exposure is from isolated cross-contact, and how much stems from the lack of clean, validated gluten-free ingredients. Not all foods and beverages can be tested accurately with the Nima and some foods need to be tested in a certain way in order to get an accurate reading. Sampling methods that experts use to determine the safety of our gluten-free food supply can be complicated.

The Nima has not yet been scientifically validated in a peer-reviewed way. Nima does a great job of sharing data about their science on their website and in their blogs, but until we have a third-party assessment, it’s important to remember that this science is new and it has largely been conducted in a controlled way.

Beyond Celiac cannot emphasize this enough: The Nima alone cannot 100% guarantee that your food is gluten-free. If you use the Nima, it is extremely important that you read not only the directions, but the FAQs on the Nima website, as there are many things to know about getting accurate test results. Read on for specific information. To read about the Beyond Celiac team's experience with Nima, head here.

What is Nima?

Nima is a portable device that tests pea-sized samples of food for gluten.

How do you use Nima?

Before you use the Nima, read all of the directions, both in the informational packet and on www.NimaSensor.com. There are many things to know about the device to get accurate results. Once you have fully read the Nima website:

You take a pea-sized sample of food and add it to the single-use capsules that come with Nima. You twist the cap tightly on the capsule and slide it into the Nima. After three minutes, a smiley face or a wheat stalk will appear with the words “gluten found.” A smiley face means gluten has not been detected. It’s important to know that just because Nima did not detect gluten in the sample, that does not automatically mean that there is zero gluten in the dish.

Why does a smiley face not automatically mean a food has zero gluten?

Because of available testing limitations, there is no way to test for zero gluten. “Undetectable” gluten is considered to be under 5 parts per million (ppm).

When you use Nima, you are testing a pea-sized amount of food. Nima works best in detecting specific types of gluten in food. Cross-contact that is not evenly distributed is very difficult to identify. If the food is gluten-free, but there is a chance that cross-contact might have occurred, there is a strong possibility that the gluten may not be included in your small sample, so the Nima will not pick it up in the test.

Certain types of food might have visible spots of potential cross-contact, like grill marks or a pizza cut line. You can take this into account as you are sampling. But if a crouton crumb or the drip of gluten containing dressing gets inside your salad, you may not be lucky enough to pick that up in your sample.

Nima also cannot accurately test for hydrolyzed and fermented gluten protein, so soy sauce, beer, malt vinegar, spent brewer’s yeast and other common foodservice ingredients will likely go undetected.

How much gluten has to be in a food for Nima to say “gluten found”?

Nima will display the “gluten found” message if it detects any gluten in the sample. It’s important to note that trace amounts of gluten as low as 5 ppm may trigger a positive test.

This can be tricky, since the FDA defines gluten-free as under 20 ppm. This means that a “gluten found” result can occur when the dish was prepared using safe ingredients that are marketed legally as gluten-free and prepared appropriately.

For people using the iOS Nima app, synching the device can enable you to see a “low gluten” or “high gluten” result (there's also a way to update the device to have this information appear on the actual Nima). These terms are not standardized or regulated in any way. The Nima also detects trace amounts of gluten below 20 ppm. According to celiac disease experts and the FDA, less than 20 ppm gluten is safe for people with celiac disease. That means that if you use the Nima device, you could receive a “gluten found” reading on foods that are making a legal gluten-free claim and safe for consumption. 

This makes decision-making and conversations with those who prepared the meal difficult, and the data the Nima collects as a result also may provide a distorted view of restaurant eating since more positive results will occur for foods that are considered by scientists and researchers as safe (testing above 5 ppm, but below 20 ppm).

I don’t like asking questions about my food in restaurants or at social gatherings. Will the Nima eliminate the need to do that?

No. The Nima is not a sure-fire way to know if your food is safe or not. Nima can be used to assist you in the process of determining if a food is safe to eat. It should not be used in place of your usual process. It simply gives you another piece of information to assist you in deciding if you want to eat the food or not.

Also, don’t forget that finding a positive result will also require a conversation that might not be so pleasant. If you get a “low gluten” reading or you don’t have the iOS Nima app, it’s important not to appear accusatory without knowing if your dish is “gluten-free” based on the FDA definition. While we want all restaurants marketing gluten-free menus to do so only if they are trained and equipped to do so appropriately, we don’t want to discourage restaurants who do it right from serving gluten-free guests.

What foods can I test with Nima?

Nima cannot accurately test all foods. Beer, alcohol, vinegar and soy sauce, for example, should not be tested with Nima. This goes for all fermented or hydrolyzed products. When foods are fermented or hydrolyzed, any gluten will be broken down into tiny particles. This makes it nearly impossible to get an accurate reading with Nima and other scientific testing. There’s a helpful post about this on the Nima blog.

Nima cautions that testing hard or dense foods, frozen foods, charcoaled meat and brightly colored foods can cause incorrect test results. Some gummy, fatty or thick foods can also cause problems and need to be handled in a different way than soup, for example.

Nima says you can test any food or non-alcoholic beverage including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Soups
  • Packaged goods
  • Sauces
  • Pizza
  • Salads
  • Dressing
  • French fries
  • Noodles
  • Cookies
  • Meatballs
  • Muffins
  • Cereal
  • Tortilla chips
  • Smoothies

Is Nima accurate?

Nima is still going through third party validation from a reputable testing lab. Nima is looking to publish these results in a peer-reviewed journal to add to our body of knowledge about gluten testing. To learn more about the way Nima tested the accuracy of its product and their findings compared to other tests, read this blog post. Testing a pea-sized portion of certain products may not yield reliable results that can be applied to the remaining portion, as Gluten Free Watch Dog found when she tested two popular oat products in this video.

Please read the summary at the beginning of this post for more information on how much gluten will trigger a "gluten found" result. 

Should I use the Nima?

The choice to use Nima is a very personal one. As mentioned throughout this Q&A, Nima can provide additional information about a food. It cannot replace the need to ask questions, check ingredients and explain safe preparation practices in a restaurant setting. This conversation is important to help you identify what to test and what type of risk you are taking in the establishment.

Nima capsules are disposable and could add $6-$30 or more to the cost of a gluten-free meal, depending on how many samples you need to take. For people who eat out or travel often, your health is irreplaceable.

How can I learn to minimize Nima mistakes?

Nima’s website provides infographics and videos about sampling and improving results. Tricia Thompson, on her very valuable blog, Gluten-Free Watchdog, also has extensive resources and instructional videos about testing and sampling.

How should I handle the conversation with a restaurant that has served me food containing gluten?

While it may be uncomfortable to be direct with a restaurant about what you found, you can help that restaurant to better understand the needs of its gluten-free guests and correct the problem.

Here is a conversation-starter: “Since gluten makes me so sick, and it can hide in unexpected places, I sometimes use a portable device to test my food for gluten. I ordered the _____ and, unfortunately, I found that there are trace amounts of gluten in the dish. I’m sure this wasn’t intended, and I wonder if you could help me get to the bottom of it so that we can make sure that nobody is at risk of getting sick from this dish.”

You will then need to go through your meal to understand the ingredients and the processes used to create your dish. Remember, you may have gotten a “gluten found” result from a “gluten-free” ingredient, possibly even a certified ingredient.

Beyond Celiac has additional resources to help guide your conversation in restaurants generally and understand the specific hot spots in restaurants. We also have the solution to help restaurants understand how to safely source and prepare gluten-free ingredients to keep their food safe from package to plate.

Here are the resources:

How can I get news and information about Nima? 

Nima's website, www.nimasensor.com, has a blog and FAQ on their website. However, Beyond Celiac and Tricia Thompson, MS, RD of Gluten-Free Watchdog, will share additional details when they become available. Keep an eye on the Beyond Celiac Facebook page and news feed, and be sure to subscribe to Gluten-Free Watchdog, which regularly publishes important product alerts and tackles the hard food safety questions.

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