Is That Fried Chicken Gluten-Free? This Gadget Can Tell You

Nima, a pocket-sized chemistry lab, lets gluten-free people test their food at the table

3 min read
Is That Fried Chicken Gluten-Free? This Gadget Can Tell You
After a 2-minute test, Nima uses a smiley face to declare a piece of food gluten-free.
Photo: 6SensorLabs

“Watch out for the fried chicken.”

That was the word circulating at a gluten-free happy hour at SXSW Interactive on Monday. The event was put on to showcase Nima, a new gadget that consumers can use to quickly test food for gluten at restaurants, dinner parties, and wherever else they eat. While all the snacks at the event were meant to be free of the problematic protein (found in wheat and related grains), a test of the fried chicken had returned a frowny face. 

“I was excited to try it, too,” says Scott Sundvor, one of the cofounders of 6Sensor Labs, the San Francisco startup behind Nima. He says the restaurant probably tried to make its chicken gluten-free by using some altenative breading, but made the mistake of frying it in oil used for regular fried chicken, allowing for cross-contamination. For people with celiac disease or other digestive conditions aggravated by gluten, such a mistake can be a big deal.

The 6Sensor crew is very aware that gluten-free is also a dietary trend that some happy bread- and pasta-eaters find highly annoying. But the company doesn’t get involved in the discussion. Says Shireen Yates, the company’s other cofounder: “We don’t question people’s motivations. If gluten makes them feel bad, then we want to give them the information to avoid it.” 

Sundvor demoed the Nima testing process at the SXSW happy hour. First he placed a morsel of the dastardly chicken in a capsule and twisted the cap shut, which has the effect of grinding the food inside and releasing a solution to extract the protein. He then inserted the capsule into the triangular Nima, triggering the release of a chemical that reacts to gluten and creates marks on a paper test strip. That chemistry step takes about two minutes. Finally, a tiny optical sensor inside the device checked the strip and translated the information into a simple binary result: a smiley face or a frowny face. 

there's gluten in them thar chicken

Photo: Eliza Strickland
This gluten-free fried chicken failed its gluten test.

The company is now taking pre-orders, and hopes to begin shipping product this summer. Customers will have to buy the Nima (US $199 right now), and also sign up for a subscription service to get a steady supply of the single-use capsules. Yates wouldn’t disclose sales figures so far, but said they’ve been “very encouraging.” 

The chemistry and the technology here is impressive: Nima is a pocket-sized lab that does its test in a few minutes, while similar tests in labs typically take 15 minutes or so.

But will it succeed as a product? That answer probably depends on consumers’ comfort with whipping out a gadget at the table. At a restaurant with friends, will a diner stick a noodle into the device while everyone watches? And will he send the dish back if the frowny face appears? At a dinner party, will a guest risk offending her hosts by testing the food they serve? 

Yates says she uses it every time she eats out. She has to avoid a number of foods (gluten, dairy, etc.), and came up for the idea for Nima at a wedding when she was once again fretting about what she could eat. Such events had become “pain points,” she says. “It was really challenging to eat socially.” She thinks that the payoff of feeling good will convince gluten-free consumers to use her device. “​If the choice is between staying healthy and offending someone, a lot of people will choose health.”

What’s more, Yates says, the Nima is small enough to be operated discreetly under the table. 

The company will also offer an app that collects users’ test data and allows them to tag restaurants with the results, Sundvor explained after his demo. “Then everyone knows, ‘Hey, I tested the fried chicken at Max’s and it wasn’t safe, but the lamb lollypops were good to go,” he says.  

One happy hour guest said that such info would definitely be useful to her. April White, who blogs about gluten-free Austin, says the gluten-free community “is really strong.” Restaurants would be wise to pay attention to their online Nima scores, she says: “If I find that a dish isn’t safe, I’m going to tell all my friends and all my followers.” 

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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