For the 15 million people in the United States with allergies (*raises hand*), simple pleasures like going out to dinner or enjoying a co-worker’s home-baked cookies can be riddled with anxiety. And peanut allergies can be especially difficult to manage due to the potential for a life-threatening reaction and the high risk of cross-contamination. (Sure, Katie from accounting says that there are no nuts in her recipe, but what if she used the same cutting board to make a PB&J sandwich that afternoon?)
Enter the Nima peanut sensor—a portable, high-tech device that tests your food for minute traces (we’re talking ten parts per million of peanut protein, which is the lowest level believed to cause a reaction, according to researchers) with 97.6 to 99.2 percent accuracy. The company launched a similar gadget for gluten two years ago and released the peanut sensor earlier this month. I tested it out over a period of a couple days and with a variety of foods, with some intriguing results.
Here’s how it works: Place a pea-sized sample of food into a Nima capsule, screw on the lid and put the capsule in the sensor. A click of a button and about three minutes later, you have your results—a smiley face means there are no peanuts and a peanut symbol indicates that traces were detected. It also syncs up to an app that lets users log their results. Overall, it was very easy to use (although it does make a slight buzzing noise while analyzing—it wasn’t a big deal at home, but was a little awkward in a quiet office).
A few of the foods I tested delivered predictable results, like allergy-friendly Enjoy Life lentil chips (peanut-free and delicious) and peanut butter sandwich crackers (duh). But I was pleasantly surprised that other items I’d previously been too nervous about trying (a chocolate brownie Clif bar and an apple crumb doughnut) were also found to be peanut-free.
But the device does have a couple of downsides. For starters, it only tests the small sample that you put in it, meaning that the rest of your plate is still questionable. And certain foods (sesame seeds, cayenne, paprika, tamarind, tomato paste or sauce, eggplant, pure chocolate and alcohol) can’t be tested at all, because of the risk of an inaccurate reading.
Another major drawback of Nima is that it comes with a $289 price tag for the sensor and $5 for each disposable capsule (so it doesn’t score particularly high on the eco-friendly scale, either). But if your health insurance benefits include FSA/HSA reimbursement, both of these items are reimbursable.
So, does this portable food lab mean that I’ll be able to give up my life-long habit of reading food labels, grilling waiters and traveling with my EpiPen? Well, no. But as the company stresses on its website, that’s not what the sensor is designed to do. Nima is an extra tool that—in addition to regular precautions—can help those with allergies make an informed decision. Hey, knowledge is power. (And for the record, I didn’t actually eat the doughnut—my instincts told me that the risk of cross-contamination was too high.)
To be honest, I’m not sure how often I’ll use the sensor (those capsules are expensive and I can barely remember to pack my keys every morning), but I can see it being useful for parents and teachers who want to be armed with as much information as possible before letting a child dive into a plate full of brownies. And despite the device’s shortcomings, I’m pretty excited about a new product designed with allergy sufferers in mind.
Here’s hoping more food companies will follow suit. Doughnuts should be for everybody.