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On gluten

Daria Nepriakhina: unsplash

Daria Nepriakhina: Unsplash

A new product has burst onto the market for anyone who eats a gluten free diet. It’s called Nima, and in less than three minutes it can confidently detect whether or not there’s gluten present in a food sample, with a sensitivity of 20 parts per million or even lower. Scientific testing by top food laboratories has confirmed the technology as 99.5 percent reliable. Nima uses disposable capsules, is small and easy to carry and is rechargeable. The only catch?

It’s $279.

Although it’s a miracle product for lots of people who can’t eat gluten, Nima isn’t an affordable option for most people — especially since it’s an extra charge of about $5 for each single-use disposable capsule. And now that the product is on the market, the company is looking into developing similar products for other major allergies. However, I think that they should focus on making their current product cheaper for the average consumer and getting medical certification so that people may be able to claim it on insurance.

Nima is easy to use (and is actually safe and simple for children, too) but the technology inside is far more complicated. Each quick, on-the-go test is actually an immunoassay, a full biochemical experiment carried out in ten cubic inches of plastic.

Each cartridge contains an antibody that Nima scientists designed for use in the device. When the antibody binds to a gluten protein, the reaction produces a color change, which then triggers the light-up response in the machine that shows an ear of wheat on the screen. Gluten is a very large protein composed only of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms arranged in a very specific order, which means the antibody has to be very specific to only recognize gluten and not other proteins with similar compositions.

If no reaction has taken place after three minutes and the light has not been triggered, a blue smiley face will appear on the screen, indicating that the antibodies were not able to react with any gluten in the sample. This could be because there’s no gluten in the sample (or gluten below the FDA gluten-free food limit of 20ppm), or could be because the gluten is chemically unable to react. This is only the case in select foods such as soy sauce and beer, which have undergone fermentation, a chemical process that affects the structure of the gluten protein such that it can no longer be recognized by the antibody.

There are a lot of different reasons why people choose to go gluten free — for some it’s as a diet or a health kick, some are gluten intolerant and have stomach or bowel problems after eating gluten and for others such those with celiac disease, gluten can actually be life threatening. I think that when eating gluten poses a serious health risk to someone, technology like this should be available to them for free, or at the very least as part of a health insurance plan.

Healthcare should be about more than just medicine and surgery; it should be about quality of life too. Eating at restaurants is a massive part of socializing, from work dinners to lunch with old friends to quizzo and karaoke nights in bars, and someone who can’t trust food from these places is forced to miss out on a huge number of things. All people with serious food allergies should be able to have control over what goes into their bodies rather than blindly trusting a waiter — not just those people with high incomes.