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App Helps People Navigate Dangerous Allergies

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Engineer and allergy blogger Kim Wilson is the mother of four.

Her oldest has food allergies: dairy, eggs, and peanuts.

"When he was about 8 months old, I think, gave him a spoonful of yogurt, and he reacted immediately. He had hives around his mouth," she described. "It's a terrifying thing to be riding in the back of an ambulance with your child hooked up to machines, making sure that they're breathing."

To avoid a life-threatening allergic reaction with throat swelling and dropping blood pressure, she makes everything with safe ingredients.

This makes grocery shopping a lengthy process.

"It does take me when I go to the grocery store a good two to three times longer than it probably takes the average person who just walks through the store and puts stuff in their cart, and goes to the check out line," Kim says.

Now there's an app to help shoppers with food allergies. It's called ipiit.

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"You scan your groceries and the idea is you don't have to spend lots and lots of time walking through the grocery store, reading every single label," said Kim. "This gives you a way to hopefully get through the store a little bit faster."

To use the app, you choose the ingredients you wish to avoid, then you scan a product's bar code with your smart phone to see if it meets your programmed selections.

We checked items from a variety of stores.

"I had it in here that I wanted to avoid dairy and eggs, and it comes up 'not for you.'"

And while some things scan as safe, the details given about the product can help parents make choices.

"Because it's on shared equipment with eggs, I would not serve this to my son, just on the odd shot it wasn't cleaned properly, and there was residue left over," Kim said.

Sometimes, the app didn't recognize a product. Generics, for instance, or even common brands, like French's mustard don't always show up.

But, you can take pictures of a product that doesn't register and email them to the app maker to be added to the database.

If a product isn't for you, the app will suggest alternatives.

Large bar codes pose a problem, and products from an entire store may go unrecognized, Trader Joe's, for instance.

Also, to scan for products that may contain nuts, that's on a separate screen. You submit a request, and eventually the app is supposed to add that to your programmed preferences.

Even with this tool, Kim still reads every label.

"I'm not sure I'd be willing to trust it 100 percent yet. Even if I've bought something before, I read it again, every single time I buy it," she said, "because manufacturing processes change, ingredients change."

This allergist agrees that this is a good way to double check.

"You would definitely want to read the label, either first, and then scan as a second type of precaution," advised Dr. James DeAngelo. "Or the other option would be to scan first, if you're in a hurry, but then make sure you read the label."

Question is, what happens when someone has a reaction?

"That's always been the problem, with any kind of liability, you're taking advice from someone that you don't know, and you don't know their credentials," he adds.

"We're more of a help and a helping hand," says Betty Toth, founder and programmer of ipiit, who has a technical and marketing background. The app grew out of wanting to help a friend with allergies. "Today we have 300,000 food products, which is fantastic in many ways. But it's not enough, because there's more products out there."

The app is free to use, and currently, Toth has no revenue stream.

"Food is a big business, and so we absolutely see a revenue potential in the future," she points out.

ipiit isn't just for people with allergies. You can also select certain ingredients you simply wish to avoid, such as artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, or to select for foods compatible with a particular condition such as acid reflux.

"I think it's in its infancy" says Dr. DeAngelo. "I think it'll take off, I think they'll be very, very common at some point, and will probably be extremely accurate at some point."

"We're headed in the right direction for sure," says Kim.

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