Isn’t the Presence of Food Allergens Obvious?
Quick answer: Yes and No! Most of us check ingredient labels for allergens but it’s complicated. Introducing Allergen Inside and Nima Sensor, companies I met at IFBC17 that might help us stay allergy safe.
Disclosure: I am writing about companies I met at IFBC17 in exchange for a discounted registration rate. All opinions are mine and I have the freedom to write about any aspect of the conference. I decided to write about two food allergy related sponsors because I think they might be interesting to Nut Free Wok readers.
Ideally when checking an ingredient label for allergens, what we see on the label should be what is in the food product, no more, no less. However, sometimes we might misread a label, or an ingredient list could be incomplete, inaccurate, or mislabeled, or sometimes there’s potential or actual cross-contact in how it’s prepared during manufacturing or how it’s handled at home or in someone else’s kitchen.
I have written about the nuances of reading allergen labels when I first started blogging and I also wrote a recap of a session at FARE’s 2017 Conference, How to Read a Food Label, which you can read about on Gluten Free and More Magazine. It’s hard and complicated but what if we had a little help from an app or a device?
What is Allergen Inside?
I asked Allergen Inside founder, Kristopher Harry, what can we expect from his app. He said, “AllergenInside.com is a food allergy alert system designed to double check the ingredients inside the food you purchase at the grocery store. You connect your grocery stores rewards card(s) and online shopping accounts to the app and whenever you make a purchase, our automated system will evaluate the ingredients and “may contain” statements in the food you buy and send you an alert by text message or email if we find any of your specified allergens.”
Why Did Kris Create Allergen Inside?
I always want to know why do people do the things they do because there’s always a good story to help us understand their motivation and goals. Kris told me his story at the conference and shared it again via email.
“My oldest son is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. He was diagnosed at 1 1/2 years old after tasting a tiny bit of peanut butter….When he was around 5 years old, he had his first bad reaction when the cooking oil that we normally purchased changed facilities and had a “Made in a facility” statement on it that we missed. We had our first glimpse of how misreading a label can affect our son’s health.”
After a second close call due to not noticing an allergen advisory printed on the package, he decided to put his computer programming skills to good use and create a tool to help us all avoid misreading the labels.
My Allergen Inside Experience: What Worked, What Didn’t Work
It’s simple to set up an Allergen Inside account and then select a plan. I selected a free plan because I don’t shop at any of the stores listed on a regular basis. It’s easy to select the allergens we avoid and to change them in case you are shopping for someone with allergies different from your own. Then I explored the different features of the app.
- FDA recall list: The food allergen recall related tool is a very robust section of the app. I receive emails from Allergen Inside in a timely and relevant way. I recommend that you try this feature out and explore the recall list.
- Allergen Free Food Search: This section didn’t work as well for me. I selected two allergens, nuts and oats, and searched for cereal. The resulting list came up with cereals that contain oats and nuts. I tried it again but with different allergens, wheat and nuts, and again came up with a list of cereals containing wheat and nuts.
- Ingredients Label Reader: A user can either enter the SKU code into a search box or take a photo to search the database. I was pleased to see that the it performed very well scanning for obvious allergens and allergy advisory statements, which is good for someone unfamiliar with reading labels or has difficulty seeing tiny print. It alerted to products that I scanned with printed allergen advisories with the following exceptions:
- General vs. specific terms: I scanned a package of soy based pasta with an allergen advisory of “made on shared equipment with other beans” and selected chickpea as an allergy. The results were “no allergens were detected” but I think a little bit of semantics (chickpeas vs. beans) tripped up the scanner.
- Coconut: I selected tree nut allergy and scanned a bottle of coconut aminos. The result was “We could not find any of your allergens inside this item.” Coconut is botanically not a tree nut but the FDA recognizes coconut as a tree nut allergen. It’s possible that coconut aminos do not contain any coconut protein or there is an exception to how coconut aminos are labeled. People with coconut allergies might need to specify “coconut” as an allergen rather than choosing “tree nut” and assuming that the reader would flag coconut as a tree nut.
- No results: I scanned a lot of other products too and discovered that I couldn’t obtain any results for some gourmet or ethnic foods, products from Costco or Trader Joe’s or Whole Food Market’s store brands.
- What I didn’t scan: I didn’t scan any non-food items such as pet food, shampoo, and lotion for any food allergens, so I don’t know if the Ingredient Label Reader would catch them or not. It’s best to double check with non-food items since those kinds of products aren’t required to use common easy to understand words for labels and could use scientific or Latin roots.
- It’s important to note that the Ingredient Label Reader cannot read information that is not on the label. Because the allergen advisories are considered voluntary, we still need to call manufacturers to understand whether they use precautionary allergen advisory labels such as “made on shared equipment with” or “made in facility with…” or “may contain…” and what do they mean.
What is Nima Sensor?
The Nima Sensor is a gluten sensor device that you can take with you anywhere. The exciting news for Nut Free Wok readers is that they are getitng ready to launch their peanut test capsules this winter.
How Does Nima Sensor Work?
My family does not own a Nima Sensor because we aren’t avoiding gluten but I am interested in how their device works and its potential benefit to people with peanut allergies.
- Basically one takes a tiny food sample, transfer the sample into a test capsule, which contains a test strip and liquid extraction buffer inside of it.
- Capping the test capsule will help to mash up the food and release the buffer solution, and then insert the test capsule into the Nima sensor.
- Push the start button, then the Nima Sensor uses some grinding and mixing mechanisms to help break down the food sample for testings.
- After a few minutes, users will obtain their results and can sych them via Bluetooth with a Nima app on their smart phones, so that they can have a record for their personal use as well as share their results with a community of Nima users.
Why Use Nima Sensor?
When I first read about Nima a few years ago, I read that one of the co-founders has multiple food allergies including gluten and they had an incredible team of scientists and engineers working on creating a gluten detector. If their team can create a device to keep the CEO safe, it should work for the rest of us, right?
One of my concerns is that if the sample is tiny, how do we know if we have a false negative because the sample wasn’t an allergen “hot spot?” It’s not practical to test the entire plate but if Nima can detect an allergen for us, then we could save ourselves from finding out that our food has traces of our allergen without actually eating it and risking a reaction. And if the Nima results are negative, then proceed to eat cautiously.
Nima works best with foods which are homegenous (mashed potatoes, corn chips, soup, etc.) but if you had to you could test very tiny amounts of different parts of your entree, for example super tiny pieces of steak, veggies, and potatoes. It’s also important to wash hands before testing samples and to wipe down the test capsule before inserting into the Nima device to prevent cross-contact.
- I was amazed to see that they visited 10 bakeries and all 10 tests results were considered no peanut, <2.5 ppm.
- They also tested packaged foods with peanut allergen advisories printed on them and all of them were considered free of peanuts or at undetectable levels.
- The results for the restaurant food orders were mixed and give Nima Sensor users one extra chance to check for safety before putting a bite in their mouths.
Overall, I think that both Allergen Inside and Nima Sensor are potentially helpful resources but they aren’t your primary tools to help you avoid your allergens. It’s still crucial to read the labels, call manufacturers and speak with anyone who prepares your food, and to be aware of potential cross-contact. We are always responsible for our own safety and Allergen Inside and Nima Sensor are great resources if we feel like we need a stronger and wider allergen safety net.
This is my second of three articles about IFBC17. Read about Sacramento and my top 5 highlights from the conference, including an allergy friendly item I found in my swag bag!
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I attended the International Food Bloggers Conference in Sacramento in August and received discounted registration in exchange for a series of three posts about the conference. I could choose to write about any aspect of the conference and all opinions are mine. I share products and sources which I use and/or think may be helpful to readers.