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Got a food allergy? There's an app for that

Supermarket shoppers can now use their mobile phones to scan in the bar codes of food packaging to ensure they do not eat anything to which they are allergic.

9:00AM GMT 04 Jan 2011 from The Telegraph UK

The invention has been hailed by nutritionists as a major breakthrough for the millions of people in Britain with food allergies and intolerances, which have risen alarmingly in recent years.

They will no longer have to inspect the increasingly dense and intricate food packaging labels searching for the one ingredient that causes problems. Instead, they can use the camera on the back of a smart phone, such as an iPhone, to scan the bar code of more than 85,000 different food items.

Using a basic bar code-reading technology that is already widely available but used predominantly to compare prices, the Food Angel application takes product scanning to another level.

Users first of all need to type in details of their condition into a website, listing which foods or ingredients they want to be alerted to. This database is then synched with the phone's app. This means that within a second of scanning in the product bar code the user will receive a red warning signal if they contain any of the problem ingredients. If it is clear, a green tick appears.

The app, called IsItInIt was developed by a Norwich-based company called Food Angel, set up by Neil Betts along with his brother as a retirement project.

Mr Betts has had an intolerance to mushrooms for nearly two decades, while his brother can't eat cheese. "As a sufferer myself, I think it could made a bid difference to consumers.

"Many packs of food have so much information, especially the ready meals, that it's like trying to read a bible. This will make life so much easier."

He pointed out that some food packaging didn't list cheese or mushrooms, but specific varieties such as porcini or Brie, making it even harder to find to find the problem ingredient.

Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, a charity that supports patients with coeliac disease, which is caused by an allergy to gluten, said she welcomed new technologies such as this. "It's great opportunity to improve the quality of their everyday life," she said.

As many as 45 per cent all people in Britain, equating to more than 25 million, could suffer from food intolerances, according to the charity Allergy UK. Some scientists query these estimates, suggesting that many people have incorrectly self-diagnosed themselves as having allergies.

As with any new technology application, there are limitations. The IsItInIt service is currently only available in conjunction with Sainsbury's, so users would have to restrict their shopping to one brand of supermarket, though the company is confident that other supermarkets will sign up to the system next year.

Also, at nearly £10, it is one of the most expensive mobile phone applications on the market.

But for some, it may be money well spent. People with coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease, are intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Some coeliacs are also sensitive to oats. Ingesting these foods can lead to damage to the gut lining, and there is no cure to the disease, other than lifetime avoidance of gluten foods.

In theory scanning bar codes with mobile phones could allow consumers to access a whole range of information that is not on the packet, such as which farmer supplied the vegetables, or when a piece of meat was slaughtered.

All the major supermarkets and food manufacturers sign up to a voluntary system to use the same bar codes, administered in Britain by a company called GS1. The codes give each individual product an identity, which can then be used in any database – be it food allergies, or farmer suppliers, or prices.

Food Angel said it would update all products each evening to ensure that the ingredients were kept continually up to date.