So there’s a trend on TikTok where people download an app that tells you if your food is good or bad – they proceed to scan everything in their house and end up throwing away a bunch of food and skincare products because the app told them it’s all bad and unhealthy.
There are many variations of apps like this that rate food and/or skincare products using some type of rating system, usually colors and/or a rating from 1 to 100 or something of similar. All the user has to do is scan a product’s barcode and voila, the app spits out some kind of note and all of a sudden you think everything in your house is toxic and trying to get you kill.
So what’s the deal with these apps? Are they evidence-based? What’s behind the notes and are they accurate?
The app I saw most recently is called Yuka. You download the free app, scan a product, and it spits out a dark green (excellent), light green (good), orange (poor), or red (poor) designation for the product with a rating from 1 to 100. It also shows the additives contained in the product as well as their notes. Additive ratings are as follows: green (no risk), orange (moderate risk), yellow (limited risk) or red (hazardous).
Right away, I noticed that the notation designations for additives made no scientific sense. Green apparently means “no risk”, but there is risk that literally comes with everything we consume. Even water can pose a risk at a large enough dose. Then we have orange, which represents moderate risk, yellow, which represents limited risk, and red, which represents risk. It also doesn’t make sense because the calculation to determine risk is hazard multiplied by exposure. In order to know the risk something poses, exposure, or dose, is needed. However, the app does not base these assessments on a dose, so there would be no way to understand the risk without this information.
You can easily see how this scale is very unscientific. So how can the risk even be calculated for these additives without giving a dose? The answer is that it can’t!
I decided to give it a try and scanned a box of chewy chocolate chip granola bars, and unsurprisingly they are rated 16/100 and red “bad”. They contain three “limited risk” additives (calcium carbonate, sorbitol and glycerol) and two “no risk” ones (tocopherol and lecithin). So why the reason for such a low rating? Well, he’s categorized the calories in orange because it’s “a little too calorie-dense” at 100 calories per bar, “a little too fatty” at 1.5g saturated fat per bar, and “a little too sweet” at 7. g of sugar per bar. For who? This is always the question I ask myself with these applications.
A 100-calorie granola bar that’s a small part of an overall balanced diet isn’t “bad” as this app would have you believe. Yet we have people literally throwing away their food because this app told them it was bad. It’s absolutely insane.
What’s even crazier are the products it recommends to you instead – and that’s where the call to nature error comes in, on which these reviews are largely based. So for this particular product, one of the recommended products he gave me instead of chewy chocolate chip granola bars was Simply Nature chewy chocolate bars. These scored a whopping 52/100 with a green “good” designation. That’s more than three times the score achieved by Chewy granola bars.
So what’s the difference? First of all, they are organic, of course. The app gives it a green tick because organic means “no synthetic herbicides.” Organic represents 10% of the overall score of this application. This is despite the fact that natural does not mean safer than synthetic and also despite the fact that there is now quite a bit of data showing that organic food is no more nutritious than conventional. Again, this is nothing but the appeal to nature fallacy. “Limited risk” additives also lower the score of Chewy bars, even though they are very safe additives, especially at low amounts of this product.
The biggest difference between the two products is that Chewy bars have 1.5g more fat per bar and Simply Nature bars have 1g more sugar per bar. The fact that this translates to such a big difference in the overall score is ridiculous. This is just one of the many examples I could show to illustrate how useless this app and many others really are. I also find it interesting how they list “negatives” first for Chewy bars and “positives” first for Simply Nature bars. Sounds pretty biased, doesn’t it?
Another example I covered in a video was from someone who scanned their pita bread and then threw it away after discovering that this app gave it a 48/100 “poor” rating. The app said it contained “additives to avoid” and classified one of the additives as “hazardous”. The rating system does not allow a product to get more than 49 if an additive is rated as ‘hazardous’, so this is essentially the reason why this product gets a ‘Poor’ rating.
Well, what is the “dangerous” additive? Disodium diphosphate, and that’s a perfect example of how these apps don’t take dose into account. This has been called “dangerous” because excess phosphorus in the diet can be harmful, but excess vitamins or minerals can be harmful, so with that reasoning, anything could be considered dangerous. If we consider the dose, we can deduce from the nutritional table and the declaration of ingredients that there is no more than 100 mg of phosphorus per serving of pita bread. The recommended daily amount of phosphorus for an adult without kidney problems is 700 mg to 1200 mg per day. Thus, in a portion of pita bread there is only 10-15% of the daily recommended amount of phosphorus.
Phosphorus is naturally present in many different foods. For example, a 3 ounce piece of salmon will contain between 200 mg and 300 mg of phosphorus. A 1 ounce serving of Romano cheese contains about 200 mg of phosphorus, but of course these apps would never call salmon or cheese “unsafe” due to phosphorus content. The tolerable upper intake of phosphorus for a healthy adult is 4000 mg per day. You would get this amount by eating 40 pieces of this pita bread daily.
You can clearly see from these examples how the fact that these apps don’t consider dose and weighting in favor of “natural” and “organic” when those designations tell you nothing about the safety or nutrition of a food, rendering these assessments useless. Not to mention that everyone has different nutritional needs, and nutritional needs can vary for the same person from day to day.
At best, these apps are simply grossly inaccurate, biased, and nonsensical. At worst, they can be very harmful not only because they cause people to throw out perfectly safe foods, but also because they cause unnecessary fear about safe foods and additives, which can lead to disordered eating behaviors. . Foods that are more accessible and less expensive are rated lower than similar versions of more expensive and less accessible products. These apps are just another way to demonize more accessible foods, causing the most harm to those already struggling with food insecurity.
Nutrition is far too nuanced and individual for a color-coded rating scale to be accurate.
Final Verdict: Do yourself a favor and delete these types of food apps for your mental health and wellbeing.
Baby food science is the pseudonym of a lawyer and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our diets. She has a degree in Chemical Engineering and has worked in the food industry for over a decade, both in the conventional sector and in the natural/organic sector.