Grocery shopping can be a battle. Sometimes it’s tough to balance healthy choices with food that you … actually want to eat. Puzzling through long ingredient lists can be demoralizing. It was that sensation that gave Benoit Martin the idea for Yuka, a mobile app that scans the barcodes on food and cosmetics to give a quick color-coded score out of 100.
Simply open the app, tap scan, and point it at the barcode on anything from a shampoo bottle to a pack of cookies. A quick glance shows whether a product is potentially bad for you (green is good, red is bad), and a breakdown explains the score and offers suggestions for alternatives.
Founded in France in 2017 by Martin, his brother Francois, and their friend Julie Chapon, Yuka has garnered more than 30 million downloads, boasts 6 million active users, and is used to scan 2.2 million products every day. It has been steadily expanding beyond its native France; this year, its makers hope Yuka can conquer the US.
After using Yuka here in the UK for the past month, I have been alerted to some of the unpleasant substances lurking in my weekly shop. The ratings have swayed a few purchasing decisions, encouraged me to switch to healthier foods, and sent me down some research rabbit holes to learn more about possibly harmful additives in our food and potentially hazardous chemicals in our cosmetics.
How Does Yuka Work?
Convenience is key with Yuka, so you can make a quick judgment based on the color and score for any product. The scale goes from dark green (75 to 100) and light green (50 to 75) to orange (20 to 50) and red (0 to 25). You can also tap on the rating to view a breakdown of the positives and negatives that explain why it got that score, complete with links to scientific research.
The Yuka ratings for food come from three weighted considerations:
60% from the Nutri-Score30% from additives10% based on whether the product is organic
Nutri-Score is used in many European countries, including Yuka’s native France. It is a simple five-color label categorizing food from A to E. Attributes like high energy density, sugar content, saturated fatty acids, and salt negatively affect the Nutri-Score, while fiber; protein content; and the presence of fruits, vegetables or rapeseed, walnut, or olive oil positively affect the score. The lower the score, the better.
Food labeling differs from country to country. Nutri-Score comes from the nutrient-profiling system developed by the British Food Standards Agency, but—confusingly—the UK uses a traffic light system instead, with color-coded ratings for energy, fat, saturates, sugar, and salt. The US relies on the FDA’s nutrition facts label, which breaks things down as a percentage of your recommended daily allowance.
Some of what Yuka covers is included in current labels in Europe, but the app also takes into account potentially harmful additives. For example, Diet Coke is green with the Traffic Light system, but it appears orange in Yuka, which scores it 41/100 because of various additives (specifically, E950, E951, E150d, and E338). Tap on E950 (Acesulfame K) in Yuka, and you learn that it is an intense sweetener rated negatively because it does not help with weight control and may promote metabolic disorders, such as glucose intolerance. Yuka says the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently re-evaluating the sweetener's safety. If you want to dig into the research, the app provides links to papers.
A Question of Trust
Yuka is an independent company that makes money through book and calendar sales, a nutrition program, and premium app subscriptions ($14 a year gives you access to a search bar, an offline mode, unlimited history, and personalized alerts for things like gluten or lactose). Importantly, the company does not accept any advertising money, “We just say no,” Francois told me, and none of its scores or recommendations are influenced by brands. Where it does recommend alternatives to products with poor ratings, those suggestions are based on matching categories, higher ratings, and local availability.
Yuka started with food, but requests from users prompted it to add cosmetics ratings. The cosmetics evaluation assesses potential effects on health and the environment, so it considers whether products are endocrine disruptive, carcinogenic, allergenic, irritants, or polluting. While cosmetics ratings are based on scientific research, they lack an independent framework like the Nutri-Score to inform them.
I was alarmed to find the handwash I regularly purchase got a 0/100 score from Yuka because of the presence of benzophenone-1, an endocrine disruptor “that easily crosses the skin barrier and then behaves like female hormones.” As I began to read about this and many other potentially hazardous chemicals that Yuka flagged in almost all of our family cosmetics, I felt increasingly anxious.
Most people understand the importance of a balanced diet, and while we may strive to eat more fruit and vegetables, we are comfortable allowing ourselves the odd chocolate bar or cake as a treat. But I found making choices around cosmetics to be much tougher. There were far fewer suggestions for cosmetic alternatives, since many of the suggested products proved unavailable here in the UK or much more expensive than what we were using.
I reached out to the Toxicology Education Foundation (TEF) for another perspective. “It is illegal to sell unsafe products,” said Jay Gooch, the vice president of TEF. “We don’t believe companies would knowingly do so at the risk of the public and investor relations issues and lawsuits that would inevitably occur.”
Gooch also referenced the toxicologist’s mantra, “the dose makes the poison.” While a hazard is defined as the potential to harm, the exposure might not be high enough to do so. And he pointed out that the average person is not qualified to evaluate scientific research.
It’s hard to argue with any of that, but many people might not be comfortable with how long it takes the scientific community to reach a consensus. For example, the FDA asserts current BPA exposure levels are safe for humans, but that hasn’t stopped many people from seeking out BPA-free products.
Yuka is so popular in its native land that French supermarket chain Intermarche announced the reformulation of 900 recipes for its own brand products to remove additives and cut sugar and salt to improve their scores. Chapon told me that some brands are now seeking Yuka scores for products in development, with a view to improving them before release.
The latest addition to the app in France is an Eco-Score that grades foods from A to E based on their environmental impact. It considers manufacturing, transport, packaging, and seasonality. Yuka developed the Eco-Score with the cooperation of French government scientists and partner organizations, and big retailers like Lidl and Carrefour are trialing it. Sadly, the information to calculate an Eco-Score is not as readily available in other countries (like the US), so it may be a while before this rolls out more widely.
The team is already working to adapt the app for the US market, but Francois admits it will likely be a few months before it’s on a par with the European version. Simply adding all the different products that are available in the US and ranking them is a laborious task, made tougher because even the same product in Europe and the US often has a completely different composition. Europe has banned many additives that are widely used in the US, for example.
Governments and regulators also move slowly. For example, the French National Assembly has backed the principle of reducing maximum nitrate levels in meat. These additives are used to color, preserve shelf life, and prevent bacteria in some meats, but they have also been linked with certain cancers by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the French meat industry, specifically Les Entreprises Françaises de Charcuterie Traiteur (FICT), has fought Yuka in the courts over the app’s assertion that nitrites and nitrates pose health risks.
Deciding who to trust when it comes to your diet and cosmetics is not easy. You may expect anything on supermarket shelves to be stringently tested for safety, but it would be naive to ignore the influence lobbying wields on the foods and cosmetics we can legally buy. “In an ideal world, Yuka would not exist,” says Francois. “And we hope that we will not need to be there in 10 years because we are making big progress with regulations.”
But for the moment, Yuka can help consumers make better choices for people and the planet and apply some pressure to industries that often put profits before health. If you want to try it for yourself, Yuka is available for Android and iOS.