Peanut accounts for the majority of severe allergic reactions, and so far there was no possibility to double-check the foods said not to contain the harmful ingredient. That has changed with Nima’s latest innovation, the portable, pocket-sized peanut sensor. I was excited to test the newest tool in the fight against food allergies. Here, you find my verdict about the peanut sensor.

Peanuts are deadlier than tornadoes

As odd as it sounds, peanuts might be more dangerous than hurricanes. While the allergic reactions to the underground seeds kill every year about 150 people, tornadoes stay in the range of 100-120 – except for some peak years. And in the case of the innocent-looking peanuts, a minimal amount can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic shock – and if there’s no EpiPen around, the attack can result in a deadly outcome.

Moreover, peanut allergy is more common than ever before: its prevalence has tripled in the past ten years. In the Western world, the occurrence in some populations can be as high as 1 in 200 individuals. In the United Kingdom, peanut allergy is present in between 0.4 and 0.6 % of the whole community. Approximately 1-2% of children in the United States have a diagnosed peanut allergy. However, in China, fish, shrimp, seaweed, and crab trigger food allergies, which make up only 3.4 to 5.0% of all allergies, while peanut allergy is unheard of. In Australia, the chance of getting a peanut allergy is even more unlikely: only 0.25% of the population is concerned.

Beyond the severity and prevalence of the food allergy, peanuts are especially dangerous and difficult to fight – and they generally show their true colors very early. Peanut allergy usually starts by age 2 with 75% of allergic reactions happening the first time a child eats peanuts. Moreover, the allergic reaction could be fierce: twenty percent of people with peanut allergies can experience a life-threatening event when they eat the seeds.

peanut sensor

With technology against the aggressive peanut

That’s why Nima’s latest invention could relieve worried parents with allergic kids as well as adults, whose lives are a constant food-related misery, from the pressure of double-checking every food label and/or interrogating clueless waiters about the ingredients of the restaurant’s meals when eating out.

It’s not the first sensor of Nima in the fight against food allergies. The Silicon Valley-based company, whose name comes from the Persian word for just or fair, has been marketing their Nima gluten sensor for two years already –named one of Time Magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2015. Since then, the device became a popular tool among people with gluten sensitivities. As their world map shows, meals were tested in many corners of the Earth: from the Siam Kitchen Express in Hawaii through the Dolce Locura in Chile until the Sushilka in Russia.

I also had the chance to test the gluten sensor with both gluten-containing and gluten-free meals – and the entire team had a technological sublime during the process. Never before had I had the chance to test food for gluten at home – and I had the same feeling with the peanut sensor. So, I couldn’t wait until the arrival of the second neatly designed, little Nima-pyramid.

peanut sensor

Testing the triangle-shaped anti-peanut tool

The package that I received contained the light, hand-held device, a small pouch, a micro USB cable for a long-lasting battery as well as 12 test capsules – and (virtually) the Nima app. The testing procedure was super-fast and smooth – very similar to the one I experienced with the gluten sensor. I put a pea-sized amount of food – some peanut butter – into a capsule, inserted it into the gadget and pushed the one button on the device. It’s that simple. The developers even made it easier to screw back on the cap of the capsule. After some softer grunting sounds, the pyramid will show the result. In the peanut butter case I was obviously expecting a „peanut found” signal, and after two minutes, voilá, it appeared.

I also tested the sensor with a biscuit on whose packaging it was said that “it contains peanut in traces” since I believe it might be the most important feature of the Nima to detect the amount of peanut which might already cause an allergic reaction. The device worked nicely: I softened the biscuit, put it into the capsule – and within minutes, it showed the “Peanut found” sign.

peanut sensor
peanut sensor
peanut sensor

How does peanut science work?

According to the company’s website, the Nima-pyramid uses antibody-based chemistry to test the given sample food for peanut protein. They explain that antibodies are large, y-shaped proteins recognizing and binding to specific target proteins – thus showing their existence clearly. That’s why they are frequently used to detect proteins in lab tests.

As a consequence, the Nima team designed the sensor to detect traces of peanut in meals using specific proteins. For brainiacs: the Nima 20B10 and 16B1 antibodies bind to a peanut protein called Arah3. Although not the most antigenic, it is most abundant in all types of peanut and is more stable under processing conditions.

peanut sensor

What type of foods could it test?

The Nima team designed the anti-peanut pyramid to test for 10 ppm, and above (equal to 0.001g peanut in a standard serving size of 100g), thus it can show tiny amounts and traces of peanut in food as well. No matter whether it’s about soups, sauces, ice cream, peanut butter, baked goods or packaged foods. However, there are certain limitations: the sensor cannot test sesame, eggplant, paprika, tomato paste or doesn’t process alcohol and solid chocolate well.

The Nima team was also thoughtful enough to include a pocket guide into its box – thus users do not have to remember all the food restrictions and limitations.

Regarding the question whether or not the peanut sensor could recognize other nuts/tree nuts – the support services responded that peanuts aren’t nuts in a technical sense. Thus the team would have to create another type of sensor for testing tree nuts – and they don’t have such plans at the moment. While tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews, walnuts grow on trees, peanuts are underground vegetables, really. They belong to the family of lentils, beans or peas. That’s why a peanut sensor with antibodies optimized for detecting peanut protein cannot recognize tree nut proteins.

peanut sensor

Price concerns and health insurance benefits

As previously, in the case of the gluten sensor, I find the disposable capsules not really economical – they are expensive, and I don’t know what happens with the empty ones. (Could you send it back, so it doesn’t pollute the environment?) A 12-pack costs $72– or $59 for premium members, which means that one test costs around $5-6. That is not cheap at all. So you have to decide when and what to test.

On the other hand, if you are living in the US and your health insurance benefits include FSA/HSA reimbursement, the peanut sensor and test capsules are reimbursable with a peanut allergy diagnosis. That’s great news, and more insurance companies should follow that great example in the future!

All-in-all, the Nima peanut sensor can provide peace of mind to anyone suffering from peanut allergy due to its easy testing procedure, portability – and accuracy. The sensors have been the subject of independent lab testing, one of which showed the sensitivity of the peanut sensor was 100 percent and the accuracy was 99.2 percent, while Nima’s own results showed 99 percent and 97.6 percent accuracy, respectively. Thus, it could be an excellent tool for double-checking meals – and having it in the bag of persons with the allergy, next to the EpiPen, of course.