The recent food outbreaks of norovirus at Chipotle Mexican Grill are a reminder that one in six people in the U.S. experience food poisoning every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 128,000 are hospitalized for it. Add to that all the other hazards in our food—carcinogens, pesticides, mislabeling of everything from seafood to meatballs—and you realize that in the U.S., the price of cheap and bountiful food is an array of unsavory compromises.
But what if we didn’t have to make those trade-offs? What if you could know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth, down to the last bite? What if we all had the ability to inspect our food in a way previously accessible only to chemists with costly laboratories?
The power to scan our environment at a molecular level, with devices no bigger than our smartphones, is coming. In some cases, it is already here, thanks to a handful of startups.
The Nima from 6SensorLabs is an organic-chemistry lab small enough to carry in your pocket. Right now it is only good for one thing: detecting gluten in foods at minuscule concentrations, as little as 20 parts per million, the FDA’s threshold for declaring a food “gluten-free.” At $250 for the device and $5 per disposable reaction chamber, it isn’t for the trendy gluten avoider, but rather diagnosed celiac sufferers who become seriously ill when they are “glutened” by packaged goods and restaurant fare that isn’t carefully prepared.
But in the future, says 6SensorLabs co-founder and Chief Executive Shireen Yates, it could be adapted to recognize all manner of proteins—including ones that would allow it to recognize bacterial contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella.