Do Allergen Detection Devices Protect People With Food Allergies?

Eating out with a serious food allergy or sensitivity can be quite the ordeal: First, you have to check a restaurant’s menu — or even call ahead — to find out if it can accommodate your dietary restrictions. Then, you must explain your allergy to a server, so he or she can alert the chef to take extra care with your dish.

If your issues are serious, you may even need to speak with someone from the kitchen to learn how they handle food preparation and minimize the chances of cross-contamination with unsafe foods. And then, when your entrée finally arrives, you have to trust that everyone involved has received the memo — and assume that there have been no accidents or slip-ups.

When Eating Out Is a Matter of Life and Death

If that sounds exhausting, it is. And that’s a major reason why many people with food allergies rarely eat out, or only eat out at a few trusted locations. Many prefer to only purchase packaged items from companies they’ve extensively researched or eat food they’ve prepared at home.

However, when traveling, working or attending classes, sometimes that level of care isn’t possible. Eating out now and then is often unavoidable.

With extremely serious food allergies, it’s not an exaggeration to say sufferers may take their lives into their own hands every time they eat food someone else has prepared: Food Allergy Research and Education estimates that a food allergy sends someone to the emergency department every three minutes in the U.S., adding up to more than 200,000 ER visits per year.

Five Americans die each day from allergic anaphylaxis — although that number also includes reactions to medications, wasp stings and other allergic triggers.

Even if a reaction to food isn’t fatal and only causes digestive upset or unpleasant symptoms, recovery can still take days or weeks. It’s clearly something most people with a food sensitivity would prefer to avoid.

In the case of conditions like celiac disease, accidental gluten exposure can weaken the immune system and damage the gut lining — even raising the risk of developing certain cancers later in life. All it takes is one slip-up during the food prep process to cause enduring discomfort or life-threatening symptoms.

With stakes this high, it’s understandable that many people with allergies would appreciate a device that could detect dangerous substances in the food they’ve been served at a restaurant, potluck, cafeteria or catered event.

These devices can be a helpful tool in the arsenal of anyone trying to avoid specific allergens, but they have some serious limitations as well. For instance, health advocates worry that allergen detection devices might give users a false sense of security when it comes to eating out. They may even needlessly discourage users from eating foods that are perfectly safe, but which return a false positive.

So What Are These Allergen Detection Devices Good For?

Allergen detection devices can be useful in certain situations. For example, if someone with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance wants to ensure they were given the correct bread or pasta option at a restaurant, a detection device would be helpful.

The Nima can aid in distinguishing between the gluten-free and wheat-based varieties on their plate before they take a bite. It could also be check for contamination in situations where the allergen in question is likely to be evenly distributed throughout the food: for instance, in soups, foods coated in flour or anything cooked in water or broth that could contain an allergen.

Foods that are made of a number of ingredients mixed loosely together are more problematic. The challenge is that these devices only measure a small sample of the entire meal, so a clean result doesn’t mean the entire dish is allergen-free. And this makes it almost impossible to test whether that gluten-free oatmeal, for example, actually uses gluten-free oats.

An allergy-free reading just means that the pea-sized portion fed into the device is safe. If there’s cross-contact between a safe food and an allergen in the kitchen — like a nut-free muffin touching a peanut butter cookie in a bakery — the device will only pick up the contamination if the user happens to select a sample to test from that specific area of the baked good. At that point, whether or not the device detects the danger is a matter of sheer luck.

What Do These Tests Actually Measure?

The devices’ sensitivity levels can also be an issue. If someone has an extreme allergy, a device that alerts the user to even trace particles of their allergen is invaluable. However, with food intolerances, minor allergies and issues like celiac, extremely sensitive tests can actually create false positives on items that would pose no harm to the user. And these devices aren’t necessarily sophisticated enough to distinguish between trace amounts of allergens and a dangerous level of the same food.

This presents a challenge for people with celiac disease in particular. Researchers have found that there is a minimum amount of gluten that people with the disease can generally consume without an adverse reaction — usually equal to a couple of breadcrumbs per day, which is admittedly not much. That’s why the FDA guidelines define “gluten-free” foods as those containing fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten.

The Nima Sensor, however, flags foods as “containing gluten” if a result of 5 ppm or more is detected. That means it’s impossible for users to distinguish between certified gluten-free foods that are perfectly safe and a slice of wheat bread — not exactly helpful or practical in many day-to-day applications.

It’s worth noting that the team behind Nima purposely chose a lower cutoff to ensure it had a safe margin of error. That’s a valid approach, but again, it limits the utility of the device for people with conditions like non-celiac wheat sensitivity. While some people can’t tolerate foods with even extremely low levels of gluten, most people with celiac would be better served by a device that can distinguish the amount present in a sampled food with greater precision and display the exact range detected.

Unfortunately, a number of reasons make more precise measurements impractical. The tests are already fairly expensive for a home user: the Nima starter kit is a hefty $279 investment, and the one-time-use test capsules cost $5 each. Meanwhile, there’s no word yet on how much the Allergy Amulet will cost when it hits the market. More precise testing would likely drive the expense even higher.

There’s also the fact that testing for allergen contamination is more art than science. The makeup of the food being tested can skew the results heavily: for instance, foods containing tannins and polyphenols are notorious for altering gluten test results. It’s also difficult to test for allergens in foods that have been fermented, like soy sauce, an extremely common source of gluten exposure. A home user wouldn’t know which foods can be tested accurately or how to best compensate for errors the way a researcher at a lab would.

It’s also worth noting that the Nima has not been scientifically validated through peer review. While it may be perfectly adequate at what it claims to do, consumers are justified in viewing the company’s claims with skepticism until more research takes place.

Should Consumers Invest in an Allergen Detection Device?

It really depends on your particular situation as to whether this device is likely to be helpful to you. While it’s encouraging that companies are trying to make dining out safer for people with dietary restrictions, until it’s possible to make more accurate and precise tools, these detection devices have a limited value.

Food allergy and celiac sufferers still need to be vigilant when it comes to their food choices — and, in many cases, these devices won’t help to evaluate whether a food is ultimately safe or not.

At such a steep price tag, it’s totally legitimate to pass up these devices and simply err on the side of caution instead. But if you’re someone who doesn’t have serious reactions — or you’d just like to be as informed as possible — devices like Nima and the Allergy Amulet could be a valuable resource in your existing anti-allergy arsenal.

Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

85 comments

Marie W
Marie W25 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Jerome S
Jerome S2 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Panchali Yapa
Panchali Y3 months ago

Thank you

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Carl R
Carl R3 months ago

thanks!!!

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Carl R
Carl R3 months ago

thanks!!!

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Mark p
Mark p.muc4 months ago

thx...

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Carl R
Carl R4 months ago

thanks

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Bill E
Bill Eagle4 months ago

Good information. We all need to seriously try and insure the safety of all people

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Carl R
Carl R4 months ago

Thanks!!!

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