Nima's newest smartphone-connected device scans foods for peanut allergens

The follow-up to Nima's gluten sensor picked up peanut proteins with 99.2 percent accuracy in a third-party test.
By Jonah Comstock
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San Francisco-based Nima Labs (formerly known as 6Sensor Labs) has launched the Nima Peanut Sensor, the second in a planned line of connected devices that can scan foods for evidence of a particular allergen. Users can put a small amount of food in a canister and run it through the small, triangular hardware device to obtain a reading of "peanut" or "no peanut."

“Millions of people with peanut allergies are eating at restaurants every day, not knowing whether or not hidden sources of peanuts in their food is going to make them sick,” Shireen Yates, CEO and cofounder of Nima, said in a statement. “We are so eager to get this device into their hands to help them make more informed decisions about what they eat.”

Nima subjected the device to a third-party tester who found that the device can detect 10 parts per million or more peanut protein with 99.2 percent accuracy.

The company has been remarkably transparent about how it tests its devices. It is also careful to communicate in its marketing that the device isn't perfect, and there's a limit to how much a person with life-threatening allergies should depend on it.

“Nima is not designed to replace your EpiPen,” Yates said. “As a person with allergies, it’s still extremely important to do your due diligence and keep your EpiPen on hand for emergencies. Nima is designed to provide one additional data point about your food to help users make a more informed decision before they take the first bite.”

Nima Peanut is the company's second sensor. A device for testing for gluten has already been in the market for a little over a year. The company has some impressive bona fides: It's born out of technology developed at MIT and the peanut sensor's development was partly funded by a grant from the US' National Institute of Health.

While the results display on the device itself as a peanut or smiley face icon, the user can refer to a connected smartphone app for more information. The app also allows users to log tests and contribute to a database of restaurants and packaged foods that other app users can benefit from.

The device will come with a hefty price tag — $229 for the device alone or $289 for the device plus 12 testing capsules that are necessary to use the device. The company will also offer a subscription price that will allow users to pay less to regularly replace their testing capsules.

A portable food testing device for allergens has been a mobile health pipe dream for at least the last five years, but most of the past failed attempts have tried to use spectrometry, which allows for a smoother user experience than having to put a portion of food into a capsule and then insert that capsule into a scanner. Nima's test, on the other hand, is purely chemical, using special proprietary antibodies to detect peanuts and gluten.

One previous attempt to build a similar device was developed by Aydogan Ozcan's lab at University of California Los Angeles. Called the iTube, it was able to identify peanuts, almonds, eggs, gluten, and hazelnuts using a spectrometer attached to the iPhone camera and display the concentration in parts per million. So far the device has not emerged as a consumer product. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne launched a similar research project in 2013. The system, consisting of an iPhone cradle and an app, could detect viruses, bacteria, toxins, proteins, and even allergens in food using the smartphone’s camera as a spectrometer and the powerful processor to make calculations.

A couple of other devices have played in this space but steered clear of making medical claims like preventing allergic reactions. SCiO, a tiny smartphone-connected spectrometer, raised $2 million on Indiegogo and another $4 to 5 million from Khosla Ventures in 2014. "SCiO is NOT a medical device and should NOT be relied on to protect you from allergens, from gluten, or from lactose,” the company's crowdfunding campaign page stated (emphasis SCiO’s). Another similar device, called TellSpec, raised $380,000 on Kickstarter for a similar device, but has since pivoted into mostly non-allergy-related use cases.jordans for sale epic