After spending half my life scrutinising food ingredients labels, I decided there must be a smarter way...
Living with sickle cell
Sickle cell anaemia is a genetic condition that affects around 12,000 people in the UK, mainly from an Afro-Caribbean background. Put simply, it means that I am always anaemic, have diminished immunity and some of my red blood cells are unusually shaped. Sometimes, these cells gets sticky, attach to one another and obstruct my veins causing severe pain.
Like the thousands of other suffers, my sickle cell anaemia means I have to be really careful about what I eat. I have always tried to stick to eating only fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, and because snacking on the wrong things could have such serious repercussions to my health, package meals have never really been a tempting option.
However, this all changed in 2015 when both my husband Rob and I found ourselves out of a job. Suddenly we no longer had the income to maintain the same lifestyle, and like millions of people across the UK who struggle to make ends meet every week, we turned to cheap processed and packaged food.
Of course, given my medical condition I still tried to thoroughly research exactly what the ingredients were in every product, and what I found was shocking! I would sit at home and Google one substance after another, only to find links to various diseases, obesity and cancer. Many artificial and so called 'natural' ingredient I found seemed to have some link that was detrimental to health, and every food was packed full of additives and unrecognisable chemicals. I was astonished that food companies are even allowed to put these substances into food, and people were unwittingly eating them every single day.
A tech solution to an everyday problem
This difficult period was a turning point for me. I was growing more frustrated with my financial and dietary constraints by the day, and I vowed that I simply couldn't go on spending hours in the supermarket desperately researching food labels and trawling the internet for what it all really meant.
Then I got thinking, everyone should have a right to know exactly what is in their food - after all, that's why packaged products are required to display ingredients labels. But how could I help the millions of other people with special dietary requirements to understand what the ingredients labels really mean, without having to spend hours researching like I did?
Rob and I talked it over and over until, combining my academic background and his technical expertise, we came up with the idea to create a food ingredients scanner app. We were so tired of asking each other "what's in this?" and "what's in that?" on every shopping trip, it made perfect sense that the app should be called: Whatsinit?
Over the following months we started working with a team of nutritionists, doctors, nurses, dieticians and developers. We had the vision for what we wanted to create, and they provided the expertise to help us make it a reality.
Mum's the word...
I initially developed the app to use for my own health and to help others with similar special dietary requirements. However, it was only when I became pregnant that I began to understand quite how many foods mums and mothers-to-be have to avoid. In my case, my sickle cell anaemia means I am unable to take synthetic iron so the app helped me find iron-rich foods, but there is also a whole list of additives and ingredients that could potentially be harmful to babies.
Every mum will know how easily germs get spread with little ones running around, and because of my low immune system it didn't take me long to notice that when my daughter started nursery she would often come home sick, and we'd subsequently have a sick household. Recently I have started using the app to ensure that she and I were eating lots of immunity boosting foods, which is working wonders.
As parents, we desperately want to ensure that our children only eat the best foods, but when you're changing nappies, picking up toys and dealing with tantrums, who has enough time to scrutinise every food packet? Whatsinit? means that you can simply scan the food and read a quick summary which tells you what the product really contains, which made it ideal for me as a parent.
We have now built the app so you can choose from a range of pre-set diets, from nut allergies to lactose intolerance, to veganism, and then it will tell you whether a product is safe to eat. It can also be personalised, so if you're a fussy eater like Rob(!), it can flag up if a food contains mushrooms.
The app now has huge database of foods which can be accessed using your keyboard, camera or voice function. The database gives colour-coded food ingredients and provides details about their aliases, nutrients and side effects - it has helped me regain control of my diet, and will hopefully help others make sense of the crazy modern world of packaged and processed food.
Temi Alanamu is the co-founder of Whatsinit? - an innovative new food ingredients and allergies app
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