Nima Gluten Sensor - testing salad

Nima participated in a case study with Bon Appétit Management Company, a division of the Compass Group, to use Nima Gluten Sensors in the dining halls of a university where they cook the meals.

The Challenge

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, approximately one out of every 100 persons worldwide is affected by Celiac disease and another 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed. Regardless of whether guests have medical conditions or if it’s a dietary preference, the gluten-free trend is here to stay with nearly 30% of Americans claiming they have tried to actively reduce gluten intake. Market research firm Nielsen estimates that sales of products with a gluten-free label have doubled in the past four years, rising from $11.5 billion to more than $23 billion.

For those with gluten and wheat sensitivities, prolonged ingestion of gluten may cause permanent gastrointestinal damage that leads to malabsorption and vitamin deficiencies. Providing safe dining options requires careful attention to food handling — any ingredient that passes through the kitchen must be verified to be made without gluten-containing ingredients and not be knowingly exposed to cross-contact during the production process.

Campuses across the country are accommodating a growing number of students with intolerances and life-threatening food allergies. For many students, this is their first time away from home making their own food choices. Many do not know how to cook and must rely on school officials and the foodservice team to help them safely navigate dining options. Investing in new technology solutions helps alleviate some of those fears by taking some unnecessary risks out of the equation.  

The Goal

The percentage of patrons requesting gluten-free options has been expanding, and the university wanted to ensure their food-handling practices measured up to quantifiable standards. More specifically, the goals for this pilot program / case study fell into three categories:

Help…

guests who avoid gluten feel safer dining in the university’s cafés.

Validate…

the university’s food-handling practices for providing safe options for students who avoid gluten.

Understand…

what meals students choose to test most with Nima, in order to inform menu planning. And, to understand how the Nima sensor & capsules work to identify gluten in food in a dining environment as a whole (both out on the floor, and behind the scenes in the kitchen).

The Location

The case study was conducted at a large university within an urban city environment over the course of two months. The campus is supported by a residential dietitian and serves unique menus in each location on campus to provide a wide variety of foods. Each dining hall prepares locally and responsibly sourced food from scratch onsite.

The Testing

Who

Paid student ambassadors were recruited to assist in front-of-house food sample testing during peak dining periods. Not all the students personally followed gluten-free lifestyles, but they participated in a mandatory pre-evaluation meeting to learn about celiac disease, gluten intolerance, foods that contain gluten, and how to use the Nima sensor. Students were asked to test all foods that naturally do not contain gluten, not just menu items marketed under “Avoiding Gluten.” They were also asked not to test foods that were obvious sources of gluten.

Where

Five dining facilities around the campus were included in the study. All café managers were given detailed training on the pilot program and how to assist the students during testing. Student ambassadors checked out the devices from the cafés and recorded their results. Separately, back-of-house testing using the Nima sensor was completed by the residential dietitian to validate gluten-handling awareness practices at the food management company.

Plans of action

The campus runs an Avoiding Gluten program where meals made without gluten-containing ingredients are prepared in-house and served at cafés. Due to cross-contact risk, especially in self-service areas of the cafés, the program is not marketed as “gluten-free” dining.

During the study, if gluten was found in any of the foods marketed under the “Avoiding Gluten” line, an emergency protocol was triggered. Students were instructed to alert the manager when gluten presence was found in these foods, and the manager then would remove the food item from service to indicate that it did not meet the Avoiding Gluten standards. A sample of the food was then supposed to be collected for later testing to validate the first result.

The Results

A total of 839 tests were completed (591 student tests + 248 dietitian tests).

Of the 220 foods sampled that were marked as “Avoiding Gluten,” only 11% (26 samples) indicated trace gluten was present. None reported a high gluten level. Upon retesting of collected food samples, 2.6% of original foods came back positive. This is well below the 32% positive rate being reported through Nima in other locations.

 

Of the 333 foods samples that were not marked as “Avoiding Gluten” but didn’t contain obvious sources of gluten, 277 were found to be without detectable levels of gluten. This shows the large potential for the Nima sensor to expand the safe options available to customers who need to follow a gluten-free diet when eating out.

Students were told not to test foods known to contain gluten, so obvious outliers like gluten positive bagels and chicken-noodle soups were excluded from the results.

Other important findings:

  • Self-serve areas had higher gluten presence than made-to-order stations run by chefs.
  • Higher gluten presence results were seen later in the day than at the beginning of service (both lunch and dinner).
  • The largest café location also had the highest percentages of gluten presence.
  • Gluten presence was detected in foods such as gluten-free pizza and gluten-free pasta (no separate pizza oven or separate toppings/add-ons).
  • Gluten presence found in breadcrumbs of toaster reserved for gluten-free bread in self-serve area.
  • Students would like the testing already completed and each dish correctly relabeled so they don’t have to test foods themselves.
  • Students would highly recommend the device for friends and family who have celiac disease.
  • Positive student feedback on foodservice staff attention and response (onsite dietitian confirmed the same).

Conclusions

The overarching goal of this case study was to see if Nima could be used in an effective way to test for the presence of gluten in the kitchen and on the line in a college food service environment. Bon Appétit Management Company wanted to evaluate if Nima could be a useful tool to have available to guests and to double check that their food-handling practices measured up to quantifiable standards.

Nima helped surface cross-contact issues

When testing the gluten-free dishes on the line with Nima, it became apparent that even with a rigorous food allergen management program, some cross-contact still exists, especially in self-service areas and later in service periods. Nima was able to help identify the sites where there is the most risk and where practices need further review.

The company noted that heavily trafficked café areas may warrant increased attention and dedication. Because of this, separate protocols should also be established for students who truly require gluten-free meals versus those who are living a gluten-free lifestyle. Dedicated toasters and other smallwares should be kept behind the counter and available upon request.

Nima testing provided an extra sense of safety

Students reported that they would find it beneficial to see Nima food sample testing results posted with the menus. This pointed more towards a use case for utilizing Nima behind the scenes, in the kitchen, rather than directly on the line.

However, because the study showed that gluten contamination risk increases throughout the day (despite testing prior to service), and supports the practice of offering students with special dietary needs food items that have not been placed in service.

Nima helped prove effectiveness of food safety practices

Beyond the actual testing, Nima was able to provide comparison information from their database. The percentage of gluten found during this study (around 11%) is much lower than the average 32% the Nima team sees in their collected data from existing device users. This indicates that precautions and best practices utilized by this food service company are helping to mitigate risks.

Nima + Bon Appétit Management Company

Bon Appétit is currently exploring ways to incorporate the Nima Gluten Sensor in its food allergen awareness program.

If you are currently a gluten-free student attending a university and think a Nima case study would be valuable at your institution, please have your campus reach out to us.