Is This Safe to Eat?

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Allergies suck a lot of the fun out of socialising. People have eaten socially since before the last supper but, for many, food can harbour unknown risks. It’s hard to look into your date’s eyes when you’re worried the sauce could cause your blood pressure to catastrophically drop, or your carefully selected “gluten free” salad will give you gastroenteritis because of an accidental dusting of flour. A new range of sensors have recently been announced which aim to reduce the anxiety of people with allergies.

The Nima gluten sensor. Credit: nimasensor.com

The sensors use antibodies – proteins which living things make to combat disease by binding to specific molecules found on germs. Many allergies (such as peanut allergy) lead to the body making antibodies against benign molecules in food (allergens). Six Sensor Labs claim to have developed antibodies that bind to allergens that cause common food allergies and coeliac disease (celiac to our international readers). 

Antibodies binding to gluten. Credit: nimasensor.com

The Nima sensor uses these antibodies to detect allergens within a pea-sized sample of food by converting the antibody binding into an electrical signal. Within minutes, the results are displayed on a small screen. The results can also be anonymously shared with other people who have allergies via a smartphone app. This, and its speed and ease of use, sets the Nima sensor apart from previous methods. Hopefully the Nima sensors will allow a democratisation of food testing and greater confidence for people with allergies who want to eat with others. That said, cost remains a factor, with each gluten test costing US$5. This is partially because antibodies are not cheap to manufacture.

Another drawback with the Nima sensors (and other tests), is they only detect antigens in the pea-sized sample which you put into them. This means a sample of the burger bun won’t tell you if there is gluten in the chips. It also can’t detect antigen-laden dust in the air or gluten in products like soy sauce or alcoholic drinks (because the gluten can be altered whilst these products are being made). Refreshingly, the manufacturers are quite open about these drawbacks.

Despite Nima’s drawbacks, I’m glad that work continues to find ways to help people with allergies enjoy food safely because what you don’t know can hurt you.

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