Many people wonder if the Nima Sensor, a popular gluten-detecting device, is accurate. This article will get to the bottom of this controversy. Please note that as of October 2020, the question of whether Nima Sensor is still in business is unknown. You can read more about this debacle in this article and before investing in a Nima Sensor of your own. Please note that I used to work in collaboration with Nima Sensor’s prior owners. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
As a proponent and personal user of the Nima Sensor, I’m asked, all the time, “Is the Nima Sensor accurate?”
This question has popped up more often of late due to some misleading information published on the Internet questioning the device’s accuracy.
In this article, I will show you how accurate the Nima Sensor really is, when used properly, and just how important it is in helping keep you safe at mealtime.
I’ve been collaborating with Nima Sensor for a long time – each month taking my Nima Sensor to a different restaurant to test a few dishes for hidden gluten. The Nima has never lead me astray. In fact, I always feel like Nima is on my side.
Related Reading: What’s Gluten-Free at the Cheesecake Factory?
I’ve never understood why some people in our community have chosen to disrespectfully talk about the Nima Sensor. This product is here to help our community eat safe and be health. While the product is not perfect, it’s the best (and only) watchdog we have to provide transparent insights into our food.
Today I want to get to the bottom of the, Is the Nima Sensor accurate?” question so you can put your mind at ease and feel good about using this cool little device built with our community’s best interests at heart.
What Is a Nima Sensor?
A Nima Sensor is a small, triangle-shaped portable gluten detecting device. You add a bit of your food a separate, single-use test capsule and then insert the test capsule inside your Nima Sensor.
In about two minutes, your Nima Sensor will tell you if it found gluten (it will display a “Gluten Found” message) or if it didn’t find gluten (it will display a smiley face).
The Benefit of the Nima Sensor
As I see it, the major benefit of having a Nima Sensor is that it promotes adherence to the gluten-free diet. Adherence to the gluten-free diet is major challenge for the gluten-free community, but medically necessary for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, especially if we want to be healthy.
One study indicated that “many individuals following a gluten-free diet regularly consume sufficient gluten to trigger symptoms and perpetuate intestinal histologic damage.”
Another study, known as the “Doggie Bag Study” because participants provided researchers with leftovers from restaurants to test, found nearly half of the leftover food samples had more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten in them.
(Note: 20 ppm is the FDA legal limit for gluten-free labeling – more on this in a bit). On top of that, five samples had more than 100 ppm of gluten it in – gulp!
It’s impossible to know what’s in our food solely by visual cues and by trusting those preparing our food to do it right.
This is why the Nima Sensor is such a game-changer for our community. We get a level of transparency and insight into our food never before seen or heard of.
Related Reading: How the Nima Sensor Device is a Game Changer
Is It Accurate?
Let’s dig into some of the data available to understand is the Nima Sensor accurate, and if and where it might fall short.
A Nima Sensor peer-reviewed study published in Food Chemistry Journal found that the Nima Sensor found gluten at or above 20 ppm at a 96.9 percent accuracy.
Let that sink in for a moment. The Nima Sensor is 96.9 percent accurate at detecting gluten at a 20 ppm level or higher. Wow!
However, one critic is misleading our community into thinking that the Nima Sensor will fail to detect gluten at 20 ppm 20 percent of the time. This is a real head scratcher to me and a highly misleading interpretation of the data. Nima even says on it’s website that this data point is “almost entirely driven by one specific food out of 13 tested. That sample, when quantified, was actually below 20 ppm.”
The 20 ppm debate is a hot one in the gluten-free community. As mentioned, the FDA says a product can be labeled “gluten-free” as long as it contains no more than 20 ppm of gluten (an as long as it does not contain any gluten-containing grain such as wheat, barley and rye).
One of the key reasons the FDA established the 20 ppm level is that is the total amount of gluten that could be accurately and precisely measured by validated testing methods available at the time the FDA set the ruling.
Manufacturers found this ruling satisfactory because they needed a reliable testing method in order to comply with the ruling; however, from a consumer’s perspective, levels closer to 0 ppm are much more ideal.
What we are seeing is that the Nima Sensor is not only highly accurate at detecting gluten at 20 ppm and above, but also it can detect gluten at levels below 20 ppm across a variety of foods.
Given this information, some critics of the Nima Sensor are now saying the device isn’t reliable and can’t be trusted because it’s too accurate. I’ve never heard of someone dissing a device for being too accurate, but leave it to our community to find a way to do so!
Is It too Accurate?
As I’ve mentioned prior, critics of Nima say it’s too accurate and therefore cannot be trusted. They say the Nima Sensor sometimes detects (and reports) gluten found at less than 20 ppm, so this must mean it’s not a reliable device.
Let’s break things down, shall we?
Yes, even the Nima Sensor folks admit that Nima sometimes detects gluten at lower levels than 20 ppm. In fact, if a product contains 5 ppm of gluten, Nima will report “gluten found” 35 percent of the time, and when the level of gluten is 10 ppm, Nima reports “gluten found” 56 percent of the time. (Remember, Nima is 96.9 percent accurate at levels of 20 ppm and above.)
Isn’t this a good thing? YES! Shouldn’t zero gluten be the gold standard?
This whole idea of people disregarding the Nima Sensor based on it being too accurate made me wonder why Nima decided to make its gluten sensor so accurate in the first place. Couldn’t it just say a product was “gluten-free” if it found less than 20 ppm and quiet those critics?
Here is what I found when I dug into the topic a bit more. It turns out Nima Sensor purposely tries to be as accurate and transparent as possible.
(1) Technology Gadgets Require a Margin of Error
Nima Sensor says on its website that, from a scientific perspective, in order to design the Nima Sensor with a margin of safety, it had to develop a test that could detect well below 20 ppm, not just at 20 ppm and up as specified by the FDA. Makes perfect sense, right?
(2) Nima Developers Faced Ethical Dilemma
The Nima Sensor team faced an ethical dilemma in the process. The developers asked themselves something like, “If we detect gluten below 20 ppm, could we ethically report it as being gluten-free?” While Nima says it it didn’t have a legal obligation to report any gluten found below the 20 ppm FDA set limit, they questioned whether they still had an ethical obligation to report such information.
Let’s say Nima Sensor only reported “gluten found” when the food item contained 21 ppm, but reported a food item as “gluten-free” when it contained 19 ppm. Is there a significant difference between 21 ppm and 19 ppm? And do people using the Nima Sensor want to know when 19 ppm gluten is found in their food?
While the FDA set the safe threshold of gluten intake at 20 ppm, the truth is 19 ppm is pretty darn close to the legal limit and just might make someone sick.
Remember, just because the FDA says something is fact doesn’t mean it is (the FDA has been known to be wrong before). It also doesn’t mean that the science hasn’t changed based on new data, testing methods, etc. And it certainly doesn’t mean one fact is true for all individuals.
Australian researchers set out to determine what threshold of gluten intake is reasonably safe for people with celiac disease to consume. They concluded there is “individual variability” in tolerance to gluten, making it difficult to set a “safe” threshold. In fact, they said, there is no definitive threshold level of gluten safe for ALL people. This study demonstrates how the 20 ppm threshold doesn’t work for everyone.
(3) More Accurate Testing Methods Already Being Used
The threshold set by the FDA was based on testing limitations (technology available) at the time, however, third party certifying agencies, such as the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), are using more accurate testing methods today.
In fact, in order for a product to be “certified gluten-free” by the GIG (the GF with the circle around it), it must contain 10 ppm of gluten or less (not 20 ppm set by the FDA). It means the GIG has technology already available that can reliably detect gluten at 10 ppm.
Given this information, let me ask you… do you think this makes the Nima Sensor too accurate?
I guess if you ask the FDA, they might say Nima is too accurate; but if you ask individual consumers, they might say they prefer a more accurate test.
When critics say the Nima Sensor isn’t reliable because it’s too accurate, you can simply chuckle knowing how ridiculous they sound. In fact, when people assess Nima based on whether it detects gluten at levels lower than 20 ppm, they are missing the point. Worse, they are misleading people to think the Nima Sensor is not reliable and this just isn’t the case.
Bottom Line: Nima Sensor is Accurate
When eating out, it’s important to gather as much information as possible about the food you eat. You ask a lot of questions, convey the seriousness of your “allergy” to servers, and, in the end, test your food for hidden gluten with your Nima Sensor. All of these factors should be part of your decision-making process.
Related Reading: 13 Things You Should Know About the Nima Sensor
Nima Sensor should simply serve as a checkpoint in the process and not a guarantee. It is up to you to make the final decision on whether or not you will eat something.
Ultimately, no food is 100 percent guaranteed safe. Even two ELISA-certified labs provided widely different results when testing the same exact products for gluten. No testing method is perfect.
Nima Sensor Limitations
Remember, when the Nima Sensor is used properly, it offers 96.9 percent accuracy.
However, it’s important to note that there are a few limitations to the Nima Sensor that can render your test(s) inaccurate. This is why you must be an educated and truthful user of this tool. You must not use the Nima Sensor as a substitute for lazy ordering or to test foods in which you haven’t first read ingredients lists and properly vetted.
Let’s discuss some of the limitation so you can be a smart user of the Nima Sensor.
Limitation #1: Nima cannot detect fermented foods, such as beer and alcohol, nor hydrolyzed foods such as soy sauce and malt extract/flavoring. The gluten protein is broken down into undetectable bits; albeit still present in your food. This is why label reading and asking questions is still an essential part of the gluten-free discovery process.
Limitation #2: Nima has not been validated on medication, cosmetics or non food items.
Limitation #3: Nima cannot detect gluten in PURE xanthan or guar gum.
Limitation #4: Nima tests a small portion of your food, not your entire dish, so you cannot be 100 percent certain the entire dish is free from gluten.
Limitation #5: If you overfill the test capsule, the Nima test can malfunction and result in an error message. Only a pea-sized amount of food can be tested at one time. Be careful not to overfill the capsule, especially when testing liquids.
Some foods require a little extra doctoring to produce an accurate test. Foods that are hard, dense/thick, sticky, powdery, high in fat, brightly colored, or acidic require some water added to the test capsule before testing. Puffed foods may require a larger amount of food added to the test capsule as well.
Limitation #6: Nima does not display the precise amount of parts per million (ppm) of gluten in the sample of food you are testing. You don’t know if it’s 10,000 ppm or 19 ppm. Nima only displays a “gluten found” message when it detects any gluten, and a smiley face when it finds no gluten.
Related Reading: How Did 20 Restaurants Fare Against the Nima Sensor
When to Use the Nima Sensor
The Nima Sensor can be used in many situations to help keep us gluten-free eaters safe. Here are a few scenarios when I have found the Nima Sensor to come in handy:
- When that gluten-free hamburger bun looks too good to be true (like at Bryon Burgers in London) – test it!
- When my restaurant server tells me they have a dedicated fryer, but I notice chicken nuggets on the menu – test it!
- When the labeling of a product, like a spice, isn’t clear – test it!
- When I eat out and don’t feel like my waiter took my request seriously (nor did he write down my order – gasp!) – test it!
- When I’m traveling and want to make sure the language barrier didn’t get in the way of me communicating my needs – test it!
Restaurants can (and should) use the Nima Sensor too!
The Blu Star Grill in Mooresville, North Carolina tests its raw ingredients and gluten-free dishes for gluten regularly. This restaurant is showing other restaurants just how easy it can be to get gluten-free right! (If you live in or near Mooresville, NC, please eat at the Blu Star Grill!)
Remember, the safest place to eat will always be in your own home. If you need support coming up with recipes and meal plans, please visit my Meal Planning community for ideas and a free 7-day meal plan.