For people living with severe food intolerances like celiac disease, even a tiny morsel of food laced with gluten could end up making them very sick.
Eating out is often a constant dilemma for people with food allergies—knowing what’s in their food could make or break something as simple as a meal out with friends.
This very idea is what Scott Sundvor and his co-founder, Shireen Yates, bonded over when they met. Both Scott and Shireen have various food intolerances, which means they have to be very careful with what they eat. Realising they weren’t the only ones with this issue, they wanted to create a simple way for others to find out what’s in their food and easily connect that information to their health.
They’ve kicked things off by designing Nima, a pocket-sized gluten sensor that tests food on the go and detects whether or not it has gluten.
In this episode of HealthRedesigned, we speak to Scott Sundvor, who is also Nima’s Chief Product Officer, on how Nima is helping thousands of people cope with gluten-intolerance by determining whether there's gluten in their food.
The rise of gluten sensitivity
In the US alone, there are about 3 million people with celiac disease along with about 20 million others who are intolerant to gluten. In addition to that, about a third of the population is actively avoiding gluten because it either helps them feel better or lose weight.
Incidences of intolerances to gluten have been increasing recently as more people become aware and realise their sensitivity to the ingredient. Since it doesn’t necessarily manifest at a certain age, anyone can develop an intolerance to gluten at any point throughout their lifetime.
Even 1/100th of a teaspoon of gluten in an entire dish could get someone really sick. There’s also the issue of cross contamination which can be difficult to avoid in most situations, especially when eating out. Despite the risks, people with a gluten intolerance generally try to live a normal life and eat out at restaurants. Although this often means getting sick about one-third of the time. On the extreme end, there are also people who seclude themselves and completely avoid eating out because it's almost impossibly to avoid getting sick each time.
We’re hoping that with Nima, we can give them another data point and some more information about their food before they eat to help keep them safe and have more peace of mind.
A mini test lab in your pocket
Nima is made up of a sensor and test capsule. The sensor has a screen that displays test results. Users will see a smiley face if the food sample is gluten-free or a wheat icon if it contains gluten.
The capsule where users put in their food sample can handle liquids, solids, and even powder. To use Nima, one just needs to put in a pea-sized amount of food in the capsule, screw the cap on and insert the capsule into the triangular sensor.
Acting like a mini test lab, the sensor then mixes up the food with a proprietary chemistry solution, extracts the gluten, and runs a chemical analysis to reveal if the food has gluten in it. Test results are also sent to the Nima app so a user can see the result within the app, tag it to a specific food and share those results with the rest of the Nima community.
Designing for precise results
Nima was designed to be as sensitive as possible, detecting gluten in food that has 20 per million parts or more, 99% of the time. Before the product was released, the team ran thousands of tests, making sure that they had a high level of accuracy.
Initially, the big question initially was whether the product should be catered towards restaurants or users with food intolerances. After inteviewing people from both categories, they realised the demand for the product by people with food intolerances was much higher.
Next, they had to figure out if the product should be designed to test only one food at a time or a combination of many small samples. Feedback from people led to a capsule design with a larger opening to accommodate more food.
Each Nima capsule is designed to only be used once. Since tiny amounts of gluten, even in parts per million, could potentially make a person sick and affect their health, it’s almost impossible to clean the capsules out well enough to get rid of all traces of gluten and make it reusable again. Having a one-time-use capsule also translates into a very easy user experience without any need for cleaning.
A digital platform for safer dining
The Nima app makes it easy for people to share the results of food they’ve tested and recommend gluten-free friendly restaurants.
The app also shows a Nima Score for each restaurant which is a combination of test results, a ranking of how accommodating restaurant staff is, and the availibility of gluten-free meals on the menu. Anyone can download the Nima app and see this information, even users who don’t have the sensor.
Nima is also working on a feature to search for packaged food. They are currently testing thousands of different packaged foods and looking forward to seeing more aggregated results from the entire community when the feature is released.
It's poised to be one of the best levels of quality control that people could have on either restaurant food or packaged food because it’s sourced from different data sources with different people testing it.
The value of crowdsourced data is so exciting to see because each individual customer has the potential and the ability to help thousands of other people.
To ensure they’re constantly delivering a product and experience that their users want, Nima makes it a priority to speak with 5 to 10 users each month to understand their issues. It's been one of the most valuable things they’ve done as a company to make sure they’re on the right track.
The future for Nima
Nima is only getting started. The company is on the verge of launching a new sensor that tests for peanuts in food.
They also plan to introduce Nima-verified stickers that gluten-friendly restaurants can place on their windows to help people better identify gluten-free friendly restaurants and cafes.
Although it’s currently only available in the US, the company has plans to make Nima available internationally, potentially starting with Canada.