Are you thinking of investing in a Nima Sensor? Before you do, read my take on this important-yet-controversial portable gluten-detecting device. The author of this article is a nutrition professional specializing in celiac disease and gluten disorders. She is not associated with Nima Partners. This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
The gluten-free world is abuzz with Nima Sensor and portable gluten-detecting devices like the Allergy Amulet and Glutrust, and with good reason. These products, when used properly, can help the gluten-free identify hidden gluten in products and restaurant dishes.
In fact, with Nima Sensor and other gluten-detecting devices coming to market soon, there’s no more guessing if that burger bun placed before you is really gluten-free; within a few minutes, your device will help you know for sure.
Before I share the pros, cons, limitations, and criticisms of the Nima Sensor, let me first introduce you to the device and how it works.
What is a Nima Sensor?
Nima Sensor is the first portable gluten-detecting device on the market, taking the gluten-free community by storm in 2017.
I was one of the first users of the device and shared my first test with the gluten-free community live on Facebook.
To use Nima, place a small piece of food inside a single-use test capsule, then put the test capsule inside the triangular Nima device. In about 2-3 minutes, Nima will reveal if it finds gluten (wheat sign) or if the food is gluten-free (smiley face).
The beauty of Nima is that it enables you to test the exact food placed before you for hidden gluten. Consider it a gluten-free testing lab you can carry in your pocket or purse.
Nima Sensor’s tagline is “Bringing peace of mind to mealtime,” and that’s exactly what Nima Sensor does for me.
It has empowered me to eat more comfortably and confidently without worry of getting glutened. There’s no more gluten-free jail for me!
Eating out is fraught with anxiety, and it’s difficult for the gluten-free community to trust restaurants to get it right.
In fact, Nima Sensor data show that 35 percent of restaurant meals labeled as “gluten-free” contained gluten!
A Good For You Gluten Free survey found that 85 percent of gluten-free respondents identified eating out as their top challenge.
Instead of giving up on eating out, I’ve utilized my Nima Sensor to help me enjoy eating out safely without fear of getting sick.
On top of eating out, the gluten-free community struggles to trust manufacturers and ingredient labels to be fully transparent.
Much has been written and said about the Nima Sensor, and some people are hell-bent on putting the company out of business.
Yet, thousands of people depend on this device and technology to eat more freely and with peace of mind.
Once you learn all the facts, you can judge whether Nima is a technology you wish to use to enhance your life or one you’ll pass on.
I aim to help you make an informed decision about Nima based on facts and personal experience as a nutrition professional specializing in celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
Is Nima Sensor Accurate?
Many people question the device’s accuracy and whether its “hyper-accuracy” is a pro or con.
Some critics say Nima Sensor gives too many false positives, which is true, but you need to understand what that means before you judge “false positives” as a pro or con.
A false positive can mean one of two things.
First, it can mean it’s a true “false positive,” which often happens when users test brightly colored foods, powdered foods, and thick or dense foods. You can read more about these specific limitations in the Nima User Manual.
Below are three incidences where I believe I experienced true Nima false positives:
- I received a false positive when I tested Jovial’s Vegan Mac, which, after Jovial sent the product for further testing, came back with no detectable levels of gluten.
- I also believe I received a false positive when I tested Food For Life Gluten-Free English Muffins, which I independently tested in a lab, and no gluten was found.
- I believe I received a false positive when I tested cumin spices, which are brightly colored and powdered. I also think my testing of Tajin spice may be wrong as well for the same reasons.
However, when critics refer to false positives, they aren’t always referring to the outlier examples noted above.
Instead, a “false positive” can also mean Nima is detecting gluten below the legal 20 parts per million (ppm) threshold. This comes to issue because the FDA says a product can be labeled “gluten-free” if it contains 0-19 ppm of gluten.
You may not have realized that foods can legally contain a small amount of gluten and still be labeled “gluten-free.” If you’re concerned that the 20 ppm gluten threshold isn’t enough, read, Is the FDA’s 20 ppm Gluten Threshold Enough? to broaden your understanding of this ruling.
Let’s say a product contains 19 ppm of gluten, Nima Sensor will likely display a “gluten found” message.
In fact, Nima says it will report “gluten found” 96.8 percent of the time when the level of gluten is 20 ppm or greater (FDA legal limit), it will report “gluten found” 56 percent of the time when the level of gluten is 10 ppm, and 35 percent of the time when it finds 5 ppm of gluten. This is what some critics refer to as “false positives.”
As you can see, Nima is highly accurate at detecting gluten below the legal limit. This makes the device far from perfect, but I believe no one should let perfection be the enemy of good.
As a side note, did you know that at least half of the women getting annual mammograms over a 10-year period will have a false-positive finding at some point, according to the American Cancer Society?
The organization says that false positives create “anxiety” and lead to extra testing, which costs time, money, and “physical discomfort.” Yet, most doctors recommend their patients undergo an annual mammogram because perfection should not be the enemy of good.
I once asked the original founder of Nima Sensor, Shireen Yates, why Nima displays a “gluten found” message when it finds gluten under the legal 20 ppm threshold.
She said that the company faced an ethical dilemma. Should Nima display a “gluten found” message when it finds any gluten? Or just say a product is “gluten-free” even if it contains some detectable gluten? They chose to go the route of complete transparency.
Unfortunately, Nima cannot tell you the exact parts per million of gluten it finds in a product; it can only display a smiley face if it doesn’t detect gluten or a “gluten found” message if it finds gluten. This is a limitation for those of you who may still choose to eat something with some detectable gluten, say 18 ppm of gluten.
Hopefully, Nima, or another device, will come up with the technology to share the exact amount (ppm) of gluten found so the user would know if Nima found 11 ppm or 24 ppm of gluten and therefore could make a more educated decision about whether a food is safe for them or not.
Now ask yourself this, would you eat a food that Nima says contained 18 ppm? How about 22 ppm? These dilemmas are on the horizon and will be issues the gluten-free community will soon have to deal with.
Does Nima Promote Hypervigilance?
Some critics of Nima say the device promotes hypervigilance, can lead to disordered eating, and puts you in food jail. While I understand this criticism, it’s unfounded, and the logic is slightly twisted. (BTW, several critics who use this argument have never used Nima Sensor nor spoken to someone like me who has used it successfully for years.)
Most people in the gluten-free community have real food fears, anxieties, and trust issues when it comes to eating out. Why? They still feel sick despite eating gluten-free labeled foods or ordering a gluten-free meal.
People on a gluten-free diet often feel sick to their stomachs and deal with the long-term repercussions of not being fully compliant with the gluten-free diet despite their best efforts to eat strictly gluten-free.
This is where Nima Sensor can shine. It can give you food freedom, helping you trust products and restaurant dishes because you have an actual tool at your fingertips to help you decide if that hamburger bun placed before you is gluten-free.
While some will call that “hypervigilance” and label it a “bad” thing, I think it’s a huge win in the pro column for how Nima Sensor can get you out of food-fear jail.
Keep in mind, however, that when eating out, it can be extremely stressful to test your food. If the result is “gluten found,” you’ll have to have those uncomfortable conversations with the waitstaff. This is why you must strive to balance dietary vigilance without losing your mind.
In a roundabout way, Nima Sensor presents an ethical dilemma to the gluten-free community. Is it better to know if your food contains gluten? Or is ignorance bliss?
If you choose not to know, are you accepting that restaurants will get it wrong? Or if you test your food and find gluten, are you holding restaurants to a higher standard and making things better for the gluten-free diners that patronize that restaurant next?
Nima Can’t Test Some Foods
A significant limitation of Nima is that it cannot test for gluten in some foods, a limitation the entire food industry faces, and is not limited to Nima Sensor.
In fact, the FDA says there is “no scientifically valid analytical method effective in detecting and quantifying with precision the gluten protein content in fermented or hydrolyzed foods in terms of equivalent amounts of intact gluten proteins.”
When using Nima – or consuming any product that contains hydrolyzed (malt) or fermented ingredients, even if labeled “gluten-free” – you must be fully aware of these limitations.
- Nima cannot detect gluten in fermented foods, such as beer, vanilla extract, alcohol, or gluten-removed beers.
- Nima cannot detect gluten in hydrolyzed foods such as soy sauce and malt extract/flavoring.
- Nima has not been validated to test medications, cosmetics, or non-food items. (Although I have “illegally” used it to test Zyrtec.)
- Nima cannot detect gluten in PURE xanthan or guar gum.
For example, if a product contains barley malt or hydrolyzed wheat, Nima may not find gluten. One influencer was attacked by the gluten-free community for mistakenly testing McDonald’s French fries for hidden gluten; she didn’t check the ingredient list, which clearly stated the fries contained hydrolyzed wheat. Because Nima and no commercial testing lab can accurately detect hydrolyzed wheat, Nima displayed a smiley face.
One of the most important skills a person on a gluten-free diet can master is label reading, which you can learn more about in my article, What Gluten-Free Labeling Laws and Certifications Really Mean. Once you know a product doesn’t contain any gluten ingredients, you can then proceed to test it with Nima.
Even the R5 ELISA testing method widely used by The Gluten-Free Watchdog has limitations.
The Watchdog says, “At Gluten Free Watchdog, we test foods that could possibly contain fermented or hydrolyzed gluten with the competitive R5 ELISA. If gluten is detected, this is cause for concern. If gluten fragments are not detected, it is not possible to know if this result is a false negative.” Below is a screenshot taken directly from the Watchdog’s website:
This is why many people in the gluten-free community advocate for U.S. food manufacturers to disclose barley on food labels. Read Beware of Malt and These 21 Potential Sources of Barley (Gluten) for more information on this important topic.
Furthermore, Nima recommends diluting powdered foods, brightly colored foods, and thick, dense foods with water to reduce testing errors and to get a more accurate result.
Nima Can Only Test a Small Amount of Food
Nima Sensor can only test a pea-sized portion of your food, which critics say can create unreliable results due to hot spots, which is true.
If one part of your food is gluten-free, but another part touches gluten, you may not know if the whole dish is gluten-free. While it would be nice to be able to send your food to a lab for full-on testing, it’s not possible to do.
One strategy I employ is to rub the piece of food I will test over other parts of my food, particularly on grill lines and parts that seem like they could have come in contact with gluten. This gives Nima a more accurate picture of the whole dish vs. just one tiny sample.
Remember, Nima Sensor is not a substitute for lazy ordering or for being overly trusting of restaurants. You must still order meals least likely to come in contact with gluten if you genuinely want to eat out safely.
That means avoiding items like pizza and pasta due to the potential for cross-contamination, even if you test them with Nima.
To learn my strategies for eating out as safely as possible, read The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten-Free.
A Nima Sensor is Expensive!
A Nima Sensor is not cheap. Last I checked, Nima Sensor costs $279.99 on the Nima Partners website and $39.99 for six single-use test capsules. Each test requires one single-use test capsule.
It can cost more to test your food than the food costs itself! If you test a $5 hamburger, you can tack on another $6.60 to the price tag. On top of that, the capsules expire after 6-12 months.
One critic says those who use Nima must recognize our “privilege.” I hate that word and find it insulting and demeaning. However, I recognize that I’m in a position to afford capsules.
I’ve committed to sharing most of my tests with my community via my weekly newsletter, which I highly recommend you subscribe to. Also, 90 percent of what I test is at the request of my community. I don’t charge anyone to see my test results.
I also hold restaurants and manufacturers accountable, which makes the entire industry better and benefits both those who can and cannot afford Nima.
Unfortunately, gluten-free foods cost more than regular food, which is a problem. Instead of calling those that use Nima “privileged,” critics should focus their energy on helping reduce the costs of medically-necessary gluten-free food.
Some countries, like Italy, give vouchers to those with celiac disease to offset the high cost of gluten-free food. It would also be great if Nima Sensors were covered by insurance.
Nima Sensor recently revived its app, which allows all Nima users to document their test results. The app died when the company was sold to Medline and virtually went out of business. The app is free and allows even non-Nima users to view what others are testing.
I love that the Nima app aggregates data so users can make a more informed decision about what to eat. Imagine 15 Nima users tested a restaurant for hidden gluten; all their tests returned a smiley face (no gluten found).
Would you feel more comfortable eating at that restaurant? Such real-time and real-life data is life-changing for the celiac community.
The Canadian Celiac Association Doesn’t “Recommend” Nima
What annoys me is the unfounded statement the Canadian Celiac Association has made against Nima Sensor.
They say they don’t “recommend” the device because they don’t believe people are smart enough to use it, given its limitations and the complexities of food testing. It’s an unfortunate statement that has not only damaged Nima Sensor but also insulted the gluten-free community.
The truth is Nima Sensor is not that complicated once you learn how to use it, just like pregnancy tests are not complicated when used as instructed.
Instead of telling an entire community they’re too stupid to use it correctly, the CCA should focus on educating the gluten-free community on how to use it safely and how it can and should be used to help the gluten-free community eat safely.
Having a Nima Sensor can be empowering to so many people. And if you’ve used it for years, you know it’s a device you don’t want to live without.
Nima Sensor vs. Gluten-Free Watchdog
The Gluten-Free Watchdog sends full products to a testing lab to determine if they contain gluten. You can pay the Gluten-Free Watchdog a $6.99 monthly subscription fee to see the test results of a handful of products the owner of the site tests every month.
Once you pay to subscribe, the Gluten-Free Watchdog says you’ll receive approximately $2,000 worth of new testing data each month. This claim highlights just how EXPENSIVE testing can be if you don’t have a Nima Sensor. (I spend about $30 per month testing products for myself and my community and don’t charge anyone a fee to see the results.)
The Gluten-Free Watchdog says this fee, along with sponsors, covers the costs of running the site.
I subscribed to the Gluten Free Watchdog and found the tests helpful, but truthfully, I also found the tests to be for products I never eat and many I’ve never heard of.
Plus, these tests say little about the actual restaurant dish or packaged food I’m about to eat. I use Nima Sensor to test the exact food at the end of my fork. Now that’s empowering!
The Gluten Free Watchdog has come out strongly against Nima Sensor, citing that Nima creates too many false positives.
Remember, Nima Sensor displays a “gluten found” message 56 percent of the time when the level of gluten is 10 ppm, and 35 percent of the time when it finds 5 ppm of gluten. And there are true incidents of false positives as noted above. This device is far from perfect!
I also think people should take The Gluten-Free Watchdog’s criticism of Nima with a grain of salt after weighing the pros and cons of the device and the costs of a Gluten Free Watchdog subscription.
Update (Nov. 2022): Members of The Gluten-Free Watchdog community have been asking The Gluten-Free Watchdog to further test products they’ve first tested with Nima.
For example, it was a Nima user who notified The Gluten-Free Watchdog that her personal Nima found gluten in GF Harvest oats, which then prompted The Gluten-Free Watchdog to conduct further lab testing.
A Nima user also alerted the Watchdog that this Oklahoma bakery was selling gluten-free products made with wheat flour! Nima has some merits, even to its loudest critics, eh?
Nima Sensor Errors
One of the most annoying parts of using Nima Sensor is when it returns an error message. Sometimes, you can look at the back of the test capsule to see what the pink lines reveal, but this isn’t a reliable method.
The first pink line will show you the capsule worked; the second pink line reveals “no gluten found,” while the third pink line reveals “gluten found.” Sometimes the third pink line is very faint.
If you get an error message, take a picture and send it to the Nima Sensor customer support email. They may issue you a credit or send you a new capsule.
Store your capsules in a cool, dry place to avoid error messages due to improper capsule storage.
Want Me to Address Another Pro, Con, or Limitation?
Just when I thought I had addressed all the pros, cons, and limitations, someone would come up with another reason to love or hate the Nima Sensor.
Let me know what you’ve heard because I would love to add to this article and ensure we’re spreading facts, not fear, about Nima Sensor.
- Nima Sensor Controversy Boils Over When Influencer Puts McDonald’s French Fries to the Hidden Gluten Test
- Canadian Celiac Association vs. Nima Sensor: Why I Stand With Nima
- The Allergy Amulet Gluten Detecting Device
- Did Nima Sensor Go Out of Business?
- What Ice Creams are Gluten-Free [Nima Sensor Tested]
- Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten Free ebook