Are Food Allergen Sensors Reliable for People with Food Allergies and Celiac?


Regardless how much you know about protecting your child from food allergens, and no matter how hard you try to convey to people, such as restaurant staff or family friends, the importance of keeping certain foods out of your little one’s diet, any situation where you must rely on others protect your family from specific allergens is quite unnerving.

You are not alone. Statistics support your reservations. Research suggests that nearly half of fatal food allergy reactions occurred as a result of food consumed outside of the home. Additionally, most allergic reactions to food occurred in response to foods that were thought to be safe.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a device that would help you determine whether a food is truly safe as opposed to merely trusting a person or label that could be faulty? Many developers had the same thought, hence the introduction of a number of new devices on the market or in prototype phase that can detect whether an allergen is present in food. But are these devices the answer parents of allergic children have been waiting for, or should we proceed with caution when using them?

What Are Some of These Food Allergen Sensors?

The Nima Peanut Sensor is a portable device that allows you to test for the presence of the peanut protein in a pea-sized portion of a food. You simply place a piece of the food into a capsule, insert the capsule into the Nima device and wait about three minutes. When analysis is complete, the sensor will either display a smile icon if the food sample contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of peanut or a peanut icon if the peanut protein is present. No technology is foolproof, and Nima previously promised only 90-percent accuracy, unless you read this more recent statement, which says it is 98.8 percent accurate when detecting 10 ppm in a sample. You can purchase one of these for just under $300, but you will need to buy additional capsules on a regular basis to continue using it. Nima also has a gluten sensor device available on the market.

Another food allergen sensor that is not yet available on a consumer level is iEAT, which stands for Integrated Exogenous Antigen Testing. This keychain detector created by scientists at Harvard Medical School can detect the presence of allergens in certain foods, including wheat, peanuts, milk, egg whites and hazelnuts, in less than 10 minutes. Developers boast of this device’s sensitivity, as it is able to detect allergens present in food samples with lower concentration than the standards of detection used in laboratories. In terms of cost, iEAT is a more affordable option than Nima, costing only about $40 for an initial purchase and $4 for each test moving forward.

Ally is another test in prototype phase. Developed by UK based students, this test analyzes whether lactose is present in food samples. Test strips that have been inserted into the device change color if lactose is found within 60 seconds of a sample being taken. A mobile app is also available to be used in conjunction with the device. The developers have future plans for the device to support other allergens.

Is There Any Reason to Not Use Allergen Sensors?

A food allergen sensor may come in handy if you want to be more certain a food served to you or your child is the right product you ordered (such as gluten-free bread instead of regular white bread on a sandwich). These sensors may also be beneficial to people who have food sensitivities but are not food allergic. However, there are some concerns about the efficacy of these devices.

One problem is found in the limited size of the samples that are tested. The devices only test pea-sized pieces of food, which can be problematic in foods that contain many mixed ingredients like a sandwich or a bag of trail mix. People who are allergic to certain foods may be at risk of grabbing a sample that contains only some of the ingredients. If the device gives the “go ahead” for the pea-sized portion that was tested, a person may assume the entire mixture is safe and still experience an allergic reaction.

Another concern is that sensitivity levels can vary. There is always a margin of error with these devices. None of them are labeled as 100-percent accurate. A false positive or false negative may be displayed as a result. This may not be a huge problem for people with food sensitivities, but for the food allergic and those with celiac, a false read can be life threatening.

Food allergen sensors can be handy for some people, but it depends on your level of sensitivity to certain foods. Parents of children with food allergies or celiac disease always need to be extra vigilant and, thus, should not rely on a device alone to determine if a food is safe for your child to eat.