Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
It could make dining out less treacherous for people with serious food allergies.
These days, it’s not at all uncommon to find a grocery store with an abundant selection of gluten-free food, such as quinoa pasta and rice-based bread. Shoppers with gluten allergies can scan the ingredients to see whether the packaged food contains anything that might trigger their symptoms—though even that’s a bit risky, suggests one study that found that up to 5 percent of U.S. foods labeled “gluten-free” actually do contain gluten.
Determining precisely what’s in your food is even trickier at restaurants. Diners can ask waiters to check ingredients, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll know exactly what could be problematic. Yes to brown rice but no to barley? It’s hard to keep track—especially when gluten can lurk in unexpected places, like sauces or dressings.
That’s why Shireen Yates—who suffers from food sensitivities and allergies—co-founded 6SensorLabs, a new startup developing a device that hopes to enable people with food allergies to test their meals for potential triggers.
Yates told Smithsonian that despite her best efforts to order gluten-free items, she still found herself getting ill about a quarter of the time that she dined in restaurants. Her company’s first product, Nima, is a portable, handheld gluten detector. Users load a half-teaspoon sample of food into a test tube and pop that into a triangle-shaped sensor. (They’ll need to use a new disposable capsule for each test to avoid cross-contamination.) The sensor assesses the contents of the capsule—detecting trace elements of gluten down to 20 parts per million—and then spits out a “yes” or “no” within two minutes. “No” signals that the food is safe to eat; a “yes” indicates that gluten is present.
Two minutes seems like a long time to wait, especially if you’ve got a rumbling stomach. Then again, downing a bagel or beer might cause someone with a gluten sensitivity to sprint for the bathroom, keeling over with abdominal cramping and diarrhea. That discomfort is enough to turn many people off of gluten.
For people with celiac disease, the stakes are even higher. When celiacs consume something containing gluten, their immune systems attack the villi—the tiny, hair-like structures lining the small intestine. Over time, that degradation diminishes the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients. This condition, which can contribute to vitamin deficiencies and even cause neurological symptoms, affects as many as one in 133 Americans, UCLA reports. So taking a few minutes to analyze a meal prior to chowing down might not be a big sacrifice.