It’s not that often that my family WhatsApp group kicks off when I mention my next interview. Most of the time, my parents and siblings have never heard of the startups I write about.
But when I said I was speaking to Yuka, a “label decoder” that can be used to scan food and cosmetics at the supermarket, special requests and questions piled in.
My dad wanted to know how the app’s results are verified. My brother requested more information about product origin. My sister asked how she could make the app work offline (currently a Yuka premium offering).
Yuka, which rates products ranging from chocolate bars to moisturising creams in a traffic-light system of “Excellent”, “Good”, “Mediocre” or “Bad” has become a household name in France — and the team hopes, beyond. Last June, Yuka passed the 40m user benchmark — that’s more than Revolut or Deliveroo.
The app’s own studies show that 94% of users have stopped buying certain products, while 92% stop short of buying an item when it is given a bad rating. And I can personally vouch for the fact that some products, from types of meat to brands of mustard, have been permanently banned from the family fridge in the last few years.
In 2021, the app also added an “Eco-score” to its offering, which evaluates the environmental footprint of products.
But the journey to the top has not been — and is not — easy. Yuka’s ubiquity has set it against food and cosmetics giants — including the French charcuterie lobby — and the company has already been the target of a few legal actions and antitrust investigations.
“It shows that the consumer has the power,” says cofounder Julie Chapon. “And it shows that Yuka is a tool that enables us to collectively put pressure on industrial groups to trigger change.”
Yuka vs French charcuteries
In some cases, change is already under way.
French supermarket chain Intermarché committed to redesigning the recipes for 900 products to get rid of 142 additives. Organic brand Bjorg has reduced sugars in its products and increased its additives blacklist. Cosmetics company Caudalie is aiming to have all of its products achieve green ratings in the app.
But others have gone on the offensive. In 2021, the French charcuterie lobby (FICT) took legal action against Yuka because the app red-flagged charcuterie products that contain nitrites and nitrates — additives that are usually found in cured meats to prevent diseases like botulism, and which have been linked to increased risks of colorectal cancer.
FICT says that Yuka’s interpretation of product quality is subjective and that it fails to put scientific information into context.
Yuka lost the case and had to pay €20,000 to FICT, as well as to stop mentioning the cancer risks of nitrites and nitrates. Around the same time, the company lost two other similar cases which had been brought forward separately by individual charcuterie companies.
Yuka appealed and this year won on all three counts. But for about two years, the company had to altogether stop flagging to users that exposure to nitrites and nitrates could be linked to higher risks of cancer.
And it cost a lot of money. “The total for all three procedures, including lawyer fees, reached about €500k,” says Chapon. For a company with a €1.29m turnover, that’s not insignificant.
The cofounders launched a crowdfunding campaign that was a huge success — just under €400k were collected from Yuka supporters. “In the end, the nitrites case only reinforced our image as a company that is independent from brands and industrial groups,” says Chapon. “And it served the cause we defend. There has never been so much talk about nitrites.”
Chapon doesn’t expect that this is the last legal case that Yuka will see through.
In 2021, the company faced another probe launched by the Italian competition authority following complaints from farming association Confagricoltura and consumer group Codici, who claimed that the ratings provided by Yuka did not accurately reflect the quality of a product.
The watchdog resolved that Yuka could continue its activities in Italy, provided that it added information in the app about its product evaluation method.
And at the start of this year, the European lobby for the organics industry (IFOAM) took legal action against the company asking for the termination of the Eco-score, which it describes as unfair to organic production.
Yuka’s Eco-score is based on a methodology proposed by the French government agency for ecological transition (ADEME) — an approach that some don’t agree with. The score is based on criteria such as how far it has travelled and whether the packaging is recyclable.
IFOAM, for instance, says that the Eco-score fails to consider all the nuances of food production.
“We didn’t see this one coming because we have always been defenders of organic production,” says Chapon. “Organic labels all contribute to improving product ratings, both in health and environmental scores. So being attacked by the organics lobby pissed us off.”
Yuka’s promise to consumers
But when you pitch yourself as an ally of consumers against the shady practices of industrial giants, you have to be irreproachable.
“We’ve claimed our independence from the start, but people are suspicious and I can’t blame them,” says Chapon. Yuka says that it follows three principles: it receives no money from brands and industrial groups, it shows no ads in the app and it sells no customer data.
Ensuring that the app gives accurate information is another challenge. Yuka scores items’ health impact with an algorithm that accounts for their Nutri-Score performance — France’s main nutritional labelling system –– as well as the presence of additives and whether the product is organic.
“No score can scientifically reflect the complexity of nutrition,” says Chapon. “We aren’t saying our score is perfect, it has limits and we are totally aware of this. It must be used together with other sources of information on nutrition.”
The company currently has a team of 12, including five full-time employees who work on verifying and updating the accuracy of the database, and one toxicologist tasked with analysing specific additives and ingredients.
A new team member is starting soon. “We’ve recruited a full-time lawyer who is starting in a few weeks,” says Chapon.
The three founders are temporarily moving to the US in the next months to oversee the app’s expansion in a market that is now their fastest-growing one. In a country that has no shortage of lobbies, it’s looking like a busy year ahead for the company’s latest recruit.