Gluten and Allergy Apps
Smart tools make life safer and easier
One Saturday night several years ago, Paul Antico was on a mission to find an allergy-friendly restaurant to take his two sons out for dinner. The trio had started at one of the family’s go-to restaurants that served egg-free pasta but a packed weekend crowd meant more than an hour wait. So Antico decided they’d just go someplace else.
He quickly discovered it wasn’t such an easy task. Antico and his sons spent hours driving around town, stopping at various eateries. They left every restaurant because Antico wasn’t comfortable with their approach to allergies, nor was he quite sure how to ensure that his food-allergic boys could have a safe meal.
“The whole time I was driving, I said to myself, ‘I wish there was a guide,’” Antico said.
So a couple of years later, he created one called AllergyEats, based in Scituate, Massachusetts. Launched in February 2010, the online directory allows people to rate their experiences related to celiac disease and food allergies at restaurants across the United States. The site includes restaurants’ gluten-free and allergy-friendly menus, allergen lists and links to nutritional information and websites. The AllergyEats app debuted in August 2011 and won the About.com 2012 Readers’ Choice Award for best food-allergy app.
Now when Antico takes 15-year-old Tucker (allergic to peanuts and tree nuts) and 10-year-old Keegan (allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs and sesame) out to eat, along with his other three children, whether on a road trip or close to home, he checks the AllergyEats app on his smartphone to find safe options for his family.
Many people are now turning to apps to help navigate life with celiac disease, food allergies and asthma. There are apps to help people cook, track groceries, view pollen levels, record asthma health, find support and more. Smartphones are being used to gather information and support at any time and any place. People are also joining social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to find brands, groups and information to enhance their lives.
“My smartphone is one of the best tools I have for managing my son’s allergies,” says Brooke Adams of Orlando, Florida. She stores medical information in her phone’s notepad section about her 5-year-old son Drake, who is allergic to peanuts, dairy and beef. By touching her keypad, she can call up the medication her son takes, the tests he’s undergone, descriptions of reactions and important phone numbers. She can quickly refer to the information during doctor visits and even e-mail it to a physician. And if unexpected food shows up in the classroom, her son’s teacher can text her with a picture of the label to see whether it’s safe.
Every time her family goes to a restaurant, Adams consults her dining apps, including AllergyEats and iCanEat OnTheGo Gluten & Allergy Free, to get an idea about which restaurants might be allergy friendly. When she arrives at an eatery, she has a starting point to talk to the management about specific menu items and restaurant practices for keeping her son safe. If she's in line at a restaurant and finds out the eatery is out of her son’s favorite dish, she scans an app to find a different safe option. Apps give her family more choices when eating out, she says, along with making it easier to quickly find a place everyone can eat when going out with friends or family.
“I like having something I can check quickly and easily when we’re on the go,” she says.
Apps have broadened dining horizons for Elyse Hahne, 24, of Colleyville, Texas. Allergic to soy, wheat, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish and modified starches, she consults AllergyEats to find new restaurants near her home and when she’s traveling. She then returns to the app to rate the establishments she’s visited.
“Before the app, I wouldn’t have tried a new restaurant,” says Hahne, a teacher and blogger. “It’s opened up options for me.”
For those looking for help preparing their own meals, there are apps for that. People can use their smartphones to scan product barcodes and maintain lists at the grocery store or to find recipes and ingredient substitutions when it’s time to cook.
When shopping for ingredients and convenience foods, Adams and her husband, Brandon, use the Grocery iQ app to keep track of safe brands they’ve purchased. When Brooke Adams finds a brand of cookies that she can safely feed her son, she scans it into her phone and puts the product into her list of favorites on the app. She and her husband sync their lists so that he can quickly find that specific brand the next time he’s at the store, without wasting time searching the cookie aisle to jog his memory.
Brandon Adams is always looking for a way to whip up something other than plain chicken breasts for dinner. He often consults Cook IT Allergy Free, an app that provides customized recipes based on his son’s allergies. The app substitutes the allergen in each recipe with a safe option and calculates the right amount of the replacement ingredient that’s needed. If the recipe is a success, Brandon Adams saves the customized recipe to his recipe box in the app for future use.
“We’re always looking for something different,” Brooke Adams says. “Give us something that tastes good!”
Kim Maes of Scottsdale, Arizona, created Cook It Allergy Free website in February 2010 and launched the app a few months later to help people like the Adams. Over 17,000 people use the app today.
“I wanted to share the knowledge I’d gained through my studies and out of my own family experiences and give others the confidence to know that they can still eat amazingly well—even after being diagnosed with celiac disease or food allergies,” says Maes, a certified nutrition and wellness consultant and allergy-free food coach. More than six years ago, after experiencing numerous health issues, Maes’ son Connor was diagnosed with celiac disease. Connor, now 8, also is allergic to dairy. Her husband, who’d been plagued with stomach complaints throughout his life, discovered he had celiac disease after his son’s diagnosis.
Maes serves her family whole, unprocessed, organic and local foods whenever possible. The recipes she includes in her app and blog are based on her clean food philosophy.
“I show people that a recipe doesn’t have to be off limits, that it’s possible to customize a recipe to work with their food allergies,” Maes says.
Simplicity is the common thread among successful apps. When Antico developed the AllergyEats website and app, he created a system that asks just three questions about the 600,000 restaurants being reviewed, using an easy star rating.
“I want to make it as simple as possible,” he says.
In a survey conducted in April 2011 about the use of health apps, the Consumer Health Information Corporation discovered that the key reason most people (over 90 percent of participants) find apps favorable is ease of navigation. The survey also found that 80 percent are more likely to use an app that can analyze information and provide feedback.
Sam Pejham, MD, FAAP, sees a lot of asthma patients in his medical practice. As assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical School and chief of the department of pediatrics at ValleyCare Medical Center in Pleasanton, California, Pejham was looking for a simple way to use technology to help asthmatics track their symptoms and peak flow measurements. He wanted better information with which to make decisions about their care. So he created the AsthmaMD app, a user-friendly, interactive tool that uses smartphone technology.
“People tend to carry their phone with them all of the time. That makes it an especially useful tool for managing a chronic condition that has symptoms that can appear anytime, anywhere,” he says.
AsthmaMD furthers asthma research by gathering data from more than 65,000 users. The information about locations, ages, symptoms and asthma activity is collected anonymously and analyzed by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, to discover how asthma rates correlate with certain factors, such as location and pollution. A goal is to create a system that provides early warnings by text message to asthma patients about certain triggers, Pejham says.
AsthmaMD also helps patients manage their disease. Users can log asthma activity, as well as input triggers, medications and notes about their symptoms. The app crunches the information and creates an easy-to-understand graphic representation.
“It just takes a second or two for a doctor to look at the picture to know how a patient is doing,” Pejham says.
That feature has helped Hahne, who uses AsthmaMD to track her inhaler use and asthma symptoms. With a quick look at her phone, she can gauge whether she’s having a good or bad week with her asthma. She brings that information to her doctor so they can discuss those times when her asthma flared.
Pejham has seen a difference in the quality of visits with his patients who track their asthma via the app.
“When they come in, it’s as if I’ve been tracking them for months because they have all this beautiful data for me,” he says. “A single visit becomes so much more powerful.”
Sakina Bajowala, MD, an allergist/immunologist in the Chicago area, uses technology to help her patients. When she first gives a diagnosis to a patient, she explains the treatment plan, what to avoid, the necessary action plans for food allergy or asthma and then refers them to websites where they can find support. She asks her patients to return about two weeks after diagnosis for an educational visit to provide further guidance. That’s when she brings out her smartphone or tablet to show apps that might work for them. AsthmaMD, Asthma Tracker, Pollen.com’s Allergy Alert and AllergyEats are among those she recommends.
“I try to give patients as many helpful tools as possible,” Bajowala says. “Apps are especially beneficial in helping teens comply with their treatment plans.”
One tool that patients, especially those newly diagnosed, often need is support. Ever since she was diagnosed with food allergies in August 2007, Hahne has turned to the Kids with Food Allergies (KFA) website. She’s consulted the KFA app every day since it launched in March 2012. The app provides access to support forums, photo galleries and blogs. Hahne can hold onto her smartphone while gaining encouragement from one of KFA's forums, a place where she feels that people “get it.”
“Something about receiving on-the-spot support is extremely helpful,” she says.
Many of KFA’s 24,000 members take advantage of the online support organization’s mobile accessibility. Just two months after launching the app, mobile access to KFA’s website increased from 19 to 25 percent, says KFA president and CEO Lynda Mitchell.
KFA developed the app to complement its website after noticing more people were using mobile devices to try to access the site. Many members who use the new app are busy moms with smartphones. The app is also aimed at those who might not have Internet at home but have mobile devices, Mitchell says.
“This is a way to expand our reach,” she says. “The whole idea of going mobile is to connect people wherever they are with whatever they’re trying to do.”
Hahne wishes there had been apps when she was initially diagnosed. She had asthma and environmental allergies throughout her childhood and started developing hives and rashes when she was about 15. The constant itching made her miserable, she recalls. At 17, just as she was about to embark on college life, she was tested and diagnosed with multiple food allergies.
Since 2009 when she got a smartphone, apps have helped Hahne safely avoid allergens. They’ve also helped her family and friends grasp the seriousness of her condition. Indeed, it was difficult for some people in her life to understand that, after years of eating an unrestricted diet, certain foods could now prompt anaphylaxis. (Some family members got wise, she says, after they witnessed her suffer a severe reaction from eating rice that had been unwittingly contaminated with fish.)
Hahne uses the MyEpiPen app to show people how to use an EpiPen, in addition to storing her current allergy information on the app. She also uses Pollen.com's Allergy Alert, which provides indexes for allergy, cold and cough, ultraviolet sensitivity and asthma, about five times a week to determine whether symptoms she’s experiencing are related to her environmental allergies. When people don’t understand what she’s going through, she’s happy to be linked to groups like KFA.
“They don’t second-guess me,” Hahne says. “They understand the impact of a reaction—the worry, fear and anxiety it causes.”
That understanding is why many people with celiac disease, food allergies or asthma log onto social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“There are a lot of people out there struggling,” Mitchell says. “It’s really powerful to be connected with others and know that you’re not alone.”
Gina Clowes, founder of AllergyMoms.com, enjoys connecting with other moms on Facebook and Twitter. The food-allergy advocate and coach says she loves the interactivity.
“Parents and patients benefit from these conversations because we’re in touch with a community of others who live in our allergy world,” she says. “Allergy families often face ignorance, disbelief, even outright hostility. So it can be a great comfort to know that you aren’t the only one encountering this.”
Bajowala uses Facebook and Twitter to dispense evidence-based medical information. In 2009, she created her blog, “Allergist Mommy.” Writing as both an allergist and the mother of children with allergies and asthma, she blogs about her own experiences with her children’s allergies and her own allergy to blueberries, as well as discussing medical news that might not yet be mainstream, such as Chinese herbal medicine. Posting her blog on Facebook and interacting with people on Twitter allows her to reach more people, she says.
“I view my role as a medical specialist to be predominantly that of an educator,” Bajowala says. “The Internet allows me to disperse accurate information as widely as possible.”
She cautions that online interactions aren’t meant to replace face-to-face meetings with doctors.
“Technology isn’t going to supplant your relationship with your physician,” she says, adding that information gained through reliable Internet sources can promote open communication with primary care physicians and specialists.
Hahne, who consults Facebook and Twitter each day along with the other allergy and asthma apps she uses, says she takes some information on social media sites with a grain of salt. But the product postings are helpful, she says, because they alert her to new allergy-friendly products and she can often determine if companies have changed ingredients. Hahne also follows certain allergists on Twitter to see what they recommend for patients with conditions similar to hers.
Over the past couple of years, the number of board-certified allergists interacting with patients through social media websites, blogs and support groups has increased. Over 100 allergists were on Twitter during the 2012 American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) meeting, with 30 simultaneously posting thousands of tweets tagged #AAAAI, according to an “Allergy Notes” blog post by Ves Dimov, M.D., an allergist/immunologist and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago. These tweets meant that information presented to the 5,000 medical professionals at the meeting was dispersed to 250,000 people via Twitter, according to tweetreach.com.
Social media has helped Paul Antico better understand the food allergy and celiac communities. Recently, he learned that several people had been “glutened” at restaurants with gluten-free menus. Looking into it, he found that some of these eateries hadn’t properly trained their staff, yet they were advertising as gluten free.
Antico would like to see restaurants post certificates that show they’ve been officially trained to safely serve people with food allergies, celiac disease and other special diets. On AllergyEats, he includes a logo for restaurants trained by Kitchens with Confidence, an organization that offers the program AllerTrain to teach food service organizations how to safely serve diners with special diets.
“All this helps me figure out how to better serve the community,” says Antico, who sits on the boards of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and the AAFA New England chapter.
As millions of people navigate life with celiac disease, food allergies and asthma, they’re turning in increasing numbers to apps and social media for help. Fortunately, this growing demand is being met with quick, easy-to-use ways to locate recipes and restaurants, track medical conditions and find an understanding shoulder to lean on. It all makes life easier for those on special diets.
“Keeping kids safe who have food allergies is already a full-time challenge,” says Brooke Adams. “Anything that helps with that task is a great thing.”