Hungry Middle Schoolers Create Prize-Winning Allergy App

Dec 12, 2013 12:27pm
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Hampstead Academy students won the middle school division of the Version Innovative App Challenge. (Credit: Hampstead Academy)

When 13-year-old Samantha Hinton is unsure of the ingredients in a snack, she just doesn’t eat it.

That’s because Samantha is among the growing population of food allergy sufferers in the United States, and she fears a bite containing peanuts could kill her.

“I know it’s deadly,” she told ABC News. “And the side effects are just too scary.”

But a team of eighth-graders at her New Hampshire school created a smartphone app that could make navigating the cafeteria a whole lot easier. The Hampstead Academy students took home the grand prize at Verizon’s App Challenge with their idea for “Chow Checker,” an app that identifies food allergens.

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They submitted the video pitch last school year and got to work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab to turn it into a reality. It is now available for download in Google Play.

“We knew that allergies were a pretty big problem,” ninth-grade team member Alex Mielens said. “We thought we could help solve that problem in our school and other places and help people who have allergies to stop from buying foods that may contain allergens.”

Food allergies affect an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food allergy prevalence has also increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.

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“Chow Checker” allows users to develop a profile and select up to 12 allergens. If they scan a food item or search for it in the app, and it contains something to which they’re allergic, the app will let them know.

The app uses food ingredient data from Nutritionix, a company that provides daily updated data from grocery stores and restaurants. The database includes more than 300,000 food items and adds almost 1,000 more items each week.

“We liked the idea that [Chow Checker] was solving for this big issue around finding what the ingredients are on foods that you purchase all the time and providing that instant information back to the user of the app,” said Justina Nixon-Saintil, who oversees education programs for Verizon. “We thought that was very original.”

Samantha plans to incorporate the app into her daily routine.

“I think it’s absolutely fantastic, and it’ll be a perfect kind of ‘easy way out’ for me,” she said. “I can just plug in the stuff to my phone and it can tell me easily whether or not I can eat it.”

Dr. Jonathan Field, a pediatric allergist with St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, told ABC News the app could be “profoundly helpful” for those with food allergies and that he plans to recommend “Chow Checker” to his patients as a resource.

“It’s necessary, because we are an Internet-savvy group these days, especially the target group – kids and young adults – who are more and more being diagnosed with food allergies,” Field said.

Field cautioned that no app is foolproof. “You always have to understand where the information is coming from,” he said. “With any app, there is always a chance for error.”

For Chow Checker, that means the Nutritionix database. Although it’s updated daily, it doesn’t include food-recall information, which can be an issue when food is recalled because of undeclared allergens.

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