A phone app that tells Muslims what to eat

By Nikita Mandhani

Whenever Anas Razzaq shopped for groceries in Chicago, he labored to understand whether the canned food and chocolate and chips conformed to the ideal Islamic diet. Frustrated, he did what many young millennials would do – he invented an app.

Razzaq calls it “Scan Halal.” It is designed to describe the ingredients of food items and tell Muslims whether the product they are buying is permissible in Islam or not.

Sometimes the app has unintended consequences, like for Rand Alkurd, a North Carolina resident who sighs because “you can’t have Cheetos anymore, not even some Doritos.”

But, for many others, Razzaq’s Scan Halal is a blessing.

Here’s how the app works:

Once the users download the app on their Android or Apple smart phones, they can customize the settings according to their interpretation of halal, which refers to products acceptable in the Islamic diet, and haram, which includes items made of religiously barred ingredients such as pork and alcohol.

After that, they can scan the barcode of any product that they wish to purchase and the app would tell them whether it is permissible or not.

“I started this app with the idea of empowering individuals to make informed decisions,” said Razzaq. “Aside from statuses of food items, we also provide sources and explanation to help the users decide for themselves.”

A screenshot of the app which shows the ingredients of M&M chocolate candies (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)
A screenshot of the app which shows the ingredients of M&M chocolate candies (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)

Yasmeen Kiswani lives in the Chicago suburb of Plainfield. She started using the app when it was first released in December 2014. Her mother would always buy mint from a specific manufacturer. One day, Kiswani resolved to scan the mint that they had been eating for years and found out that it had gelatin in it.

“It opened my eyes,” said Kiswani. “We use these products for so long and we don’t even realize that they are haram.”

The app provides its users with three user settings.

A screenshot showing the permissible settings on the scan halal app (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)
A screenshot showing the permissible settings on the scan halal app (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)

Under the “zabiha” setting, even the slightest amount of alcohol content, pork derivatives or meat products would be non-permissible. Razzaq calls the zabiha a “more stringent” standard. Meat products that have a “halal” logo, which means that they have been slaughtered in a manner acceptable in Islam, are permissible for people following this benchmark.

The “non-zabiha” setting is more lax and considers all meat except pork as permissible irrespective of the cutting technique, while the “custom” setting allows the user to enter specific dietary restrictions like a set proportion of alcohol content that they wouldn’t mind in their products or some ingredients that they wish to avoid in their diet.

Abdallah Alatoom, who lives in Chicago, scans almost every product before purchasing it to make sure that it falls under the purview of Islam. The one thing he loves about the app is that it lists all products that other users have scanned as it helps him get information about some products without even scanning them. Their family scans cereals, chips, candies, sauces and hotdogs among other edibles.

A screenshot showing the latest inspections done by the app in different parts of the country (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)
A screenshot showing the latest inspections done by the app in different parts of the country (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)

“The funniest thing is when you scan something you like a lot and it shows that you can’t eat it anymore,” said Alatoom talking about times he wished he “hadn’t used the app.”

His children don’t like Scan Halal and especially don’t want to use it for candy.

Alatoom laughed and said, “They want to eat all kinds of candy.”

A screenshot showing conflicting ingredients in a product (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)
A screenshot showing conflicting ingredients in a product (Nikita Mandhani/Medill Reports)

Scan Halal thrives in the idea of allowing the users to decide their own standard because “my halal can be different from someone else’s halal,” Razzaq said.

Rand Alkurd feels that sometimes the app goes overboard with the enzymes and explanations “just because a lot of these things become chemically different or non-permissible.”

But, she states that she loves the app because it captures the item right away and fleshes out details about the ingredients.

“We scanned a pineapple once and it said that the product is fine for use,” she said, describing how she would scan her entire pantry in the beginning for fun.

The app database is updated constantly with new products. Razzaq pointed out a feature where people can send pictures of products that they tried to scan and didn’t find in the database. The developers of the app get about 700 product requests everyday.

Sharing some of the most hilarious user-posts, Razzaq said, “People send pictures of themselves or their kids and want us to tell them whether this is halal or not.”

→ Download the app: Apple/Android

Photo at top: A 24-7 indian restaurant that sells 100 percent Halal food (Anthony Easton/Creative Commons)