JEFFREY BROWN: a growing number of people in the U.S. suffer from severe food allergies, and many more avoid certain foods for other health reasons.
But it can be hard to navigate food choices when out at restaurants and social events.
Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from San Francisco on a start-up that aims to improve food transparency for consumers, starting with gluten, found in wheat and other grains.
It’s the latest in our Breakthroughs series on invention and innovation.
CAT WISE: Thirty-one-year-old Shireen Yates loves dining out with friends, but when she’s ordering, it’s often a stressful experience.
SHIREEN YATES, Co-Founder, 6SensorLabs: I would love the empanadas with black beans and plantains. Those are gluten-free, right?
WOMAN: Yes, everything is gluten-free.
CAT WISE: Yates says she suffers from severe gluten sensitivities, and she also has problems with soy, dairy and egg. Despite her best efforts to avoid those foods, she often finds herself in situations where she doesn’t know or trust what she’s told is in the food.
If she ingests even the smallest amount of the foods she has issues with, her health can be impacted for days. While in graduate school at MIT, Yates attended a friend’s wedding and had an unpleasant dining experience that sparked an idea.
SHIREEN YATES: This waitress comes by with these delicious looking appetizers, and I asked her, are these appetizers gluten-free? And she said, how allergic are you? I was probably really angry, angry. You know, just, like, starving. And I was like, why can’t I just test this? And that was that aha moment. I said, well, why not? How hard could that be? It’s hard.
CAT WISE: Three years later, after teaming up with Scott Sundvor, a fellow MIT grad who also has to avoid gluten due to a health condition, Yates is on the verge of turning that idea into a reality, with this small portable gluten detecting device called the Nima. Nima means fair and equitable in Farsi, Yates’ family’s native language.
SHIREEN YATES: Yes. So this is Nima.
CAT WISE: In the kitchen of their small San Francisco start-up, Yates gave us a demo on some fresh, supposedly gluten-free waffles that had just been delivered from a local restaurant.
SHIREEN YATES: So, what we would do is, we would take a sample of food, and we put it in this little capsule. And then were going to take the top. The action of closing this will grind the food. So, I’m just going to put it in the sensor right now, and then we’re going to start it.
CAT WISE: It takes about two minutes for the results to come back. During that time, the device uses a sophisticated antibody the company developed to test if gluten is present. They are testing to levels set by the Food and Drug Administration for what constitutes gluten-free. That’s 20 gluten protein parts per million.
A smiley face means no gluten at those levels. A frown means gluten is present.
So, we got a smiley face. So what does that mean?
SHIREEN YATES: That means I feel a lot better about eating my waffle.
CAT WISE: Now, could some other part of this waffle have gluten in it?
SHIREEN YATES: Yes, yes. That is absolutely a possibility.
But what we are doing is giving you that extra piece of data to really improve your odds of staying your healthiest self when you’re eating out, and actively trying to avoid certain foods.
CAT WISE: Those trying to avoid gluten is a big market, about one in five Americans these days. A team of engineers and scientists who are part of the company now called 6SensorLabs are making tweaks to the Nima before shipping it out to customers next summer.
It will cost about $250 and each of the disposable capsule will be about $4 to $5, depending on the quantity ordered. Testing foods for gluten isn’t new, of course. It’s often done in commercial labs. And there are some home testing kits out there.
But many are time-consuming and require multiple steps to get the results. That presented the team with a design challenge.
Co-founder Scott Sundvor:
SCOTT SUNDVOR, Co-Founder, 6SensorLabs: This is a consumer product. It’s not a medical device. And because of that, it has to be something that’s really easy to use. It has to be fast. It has to be discreet.
CAT WISE: The company is aiming for 99.5 percent accuracy. And they’re comparing their results with the results of other independent gluten testing labs. What they have found so far is about a quarter of the foods they have tested labeled gluten-free have in fact had some gluten in them. Yates says that doesn’t surprise her.
SHIREEN YATES: I don’t know if you have ever worked in a kitchen, but it’s chaos. And so the idea of getting your order in, making sure it was heard correctly, getting it to the chef, and making sure everything was prepared in the right way, getting the dish, and putting it back in front of that consumer that has that real sensitivity, there’s a lot that can go wrong.
CAT WISE: The Nima currently tests only for gluten, but the company is planning to eventually test for other allergens like dairy and peanuts. But that’s proving harder to do.
JINGQING ZHANG, Lead Scientist, 6SensorLabs: There hasn’t been a clear guideline regarding what exactly — what level do you have to detect in order to make sure that people aren’t getting sick at these levels?
CAT WISE: Jingqing Zhang is the company’s lead scientist. She says, unlike for gluten, the FDA doesn’t have a set standard for what constitutes dairy-free or peanut-free.
JINGQING ZHANG: A big challenge was to understand and potentially work with these regulatory agencies to figure out what is the level we need to bring it down to? The second challenge I really see is that we need to be detecting these proteins at very, very sensitive levels.
CAT WISE: While 6SensorLabs is focused on getting their product to market quickly, their competition is heating up. Several other companies are developing different food testing technologies, including the use of smartphones.
All are attempting to capitalize on the growing number of Americans who are food-focused, especially when it comes to gluten. It’s a trend that has more than a few skeptics. But for the estimated three million Americans who suffer from celiac disease, an inflammation of the intestines, there’s no disputing that gluten ingestion is a serious health problem.
DR. NIELSEN FERNANDEZ-BECKER, Stanford Celiac Management Clinic: There’s some studies that suggest that as little as 50 to 100 milligrams is enough to activate an immune response. To put that into perspective, a slice of bread has 5,000 milligrams. So, it really doesn’t take a lot.
CAT WISE: Dr. Nielsen Fernandez-Becker is the director of the Celiac Management Clinic at Stanford University Hospital. She says that products like the Nima could be helpful, but they shouldn’t be a crutch for patients.
DR. NIELSEN FERNANDEZ-BECKER: I think it would be valuable. But I think it’s only one tool in the arsenal. I hope what it doesn’t do is that it makes patients more complacent. If you have a piece of steak and you sample one side, could we be missing gluten in some other side?
CAT WISE: The Nima team is now developing an app that will allow users to share information about the tests they have done on foods, and where gluten-free is truly gluten-free.
For Shireen Yates, that kind of knowledge can make or break her meal out. After getting the smiley face she was hoping for, she dived right into her gluten-free empanadas.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Cat Wise in San Francisco.