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Portable sensors being used to trace gluten in food

MIT spinoff Nima has developed a portable, highly sensitive gluten sensor that can be used by gluten-intolerant diners in restaurants.

The sensor, also called Nima, is a 7.6cm-tall triangular device with disposable capsules. Diners put a pea-sized sample of food or liquid into the capsule, screw on the top and insert the capsule into the device, which mixes the food into a solution that detect gluten. In two or three minutes, a digital display appears on the sensor, indicating whether or not the food contains gluten.

Each time a test is run, the result is automatically sent to a corresponding app. The diner can then log where and what they ate, and whether the food contained gluten. Any user can access these results.

The sensor can detect gluten at 20ppm or more, which is the maximum concentration for “gluten-free” foods as determined by the US Food and Drug Administration. Its high sensitivity can be attributed to the immunoassay inside the sensor, which contains custom antibodies that are highly sensitive to gluten molecules. When gluten is present, the antibody bonds to the gluten molecules, causing a colour change in the immunoassay, which is captured by an optical reader.

The sensor can detect gluten in foods that are labelled as “gluten-free” but may have picked up microscopic amounts during the preparation or cooking process. For example, a piece of meat may have been fried on the same grill as gluten-free foods, or someone may have touched a piece of bread containing gluten before handling the gluten-free food.

“It’s the equivalent to finding a breadcrumb in an entire plate of food,” according to chief product officer Scott Sundvor.

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