BARCELONA, SPAIN – If the small labels cataloguing the ingredients your food or your cosmetics contain are too complex for you to understand and – most importantly – assess the threat they might possess to your health, that’s pretty understandable. No one could know what these E’s or chemistry jargon means, let alone if they’re toxic or potentially carcinogenic.
Identifying this need and a gap in the market for tech solutions, Athens, Greece-based Zoe Cournia created ingred.io, a mobile app that lets users scan the ingredient label of a product and find out instantly if it’s hazardous to their health. New Europe caught up with Cournia at Mobile World Congress, hosted this week in Barcelona. ingred.io was featured in Greece’s exhibiting booth.
“Researching chemical additives in food and cosmetics, I found that some ingredients have been documented as unsafe, yet consumers are unaware of it”, says Cournia, a chemist working in cancer research.
“The information about the potential risk of product ingredients is open-source and available to consumers through validated sources. However, it’s difficult for them to be informed, either because the chemical names are too complex or because chemicals are encoded. Although access to this information is publicly available, its retrieval for consumers is challenging due to the complexity of the sources, and its comprehension is prohibitive due to the technicality of the description.”
With ingred.io users take a picture of the product ingredients and crop the photo to the relevant text. Then the photo is converted to text and each ingredient is searched in the app’s database. An overall product score and a color-coded score for each ingredient is returned.
“Existing apps to address this problem are very limited and only work with scanning of a barcode. This limits their use only to the country of origin. It would be impossible to gather barcodes for all products from around the globe, but ingred.io can be used word-wide,” says Cournia, who got the idea of building an app, through her teaching at a Biology and Medicine Master’s of the Department of Informatics and Telecommunications at the University of Athens.
In order to evaluate the hazard levels of a product Cournia and her team – business developer Nikos Orfanos; a Mechanical Engineer who has founded three companies, and Android developer Anax Fotopoulos; an Electronic Computer Systems Engineer who has coded apps with more than a 1.5 million downloads – have built a scoring function that sums up the weighted factors for each ingredient association with irritation, mutagenesis, cancer, neurotoxicity, developmental and environmental toxicity, as these have been reported in peer-reviewed literature. The overall score ranges from 0-10 and it’s colour-coded; green set to be the less hazardous and red the most potentially hazardous.
The app retrieves information for more than 7,500 chemical ingredients; data that come from the Cosing Database of the European Commission and the PubChem Database of the US National Institute of Health. The app offers a reference link for each ingredient so users can explore the sources from where the data was obtained.
The process is repeated for all ingredients and the hazard-level score of each one is stored in ingred.io’s database. Depending on the ingredient concentration (based on the descending order with which the chemicals appear in the label), the app provides a total potential hazard score for each product.
Users can also perform a direct search within the app, by typing the name or the E-code of the ingredient.
ingred.io was founded in late 2016 and is currently being hosted at ‘the egg‘, a 12-month incubating program set up by Eurobank, one of Greece’s largest banks.
“The crisis in Greece brought on serious socioeconomic problems, but at the same time it also forced young people to change perception and embrace entrepreneurship,” says Cournia, who has a 15-year experience in research, when asked about starting-up in Greece.
“There are a bunch of initiatives that have helped change the mindset of the talented young Greek people. However, the current financial situation does not help promote entrepreneurship,” says Cournia. She lists limited flows of private and public investment, the unreliable tax framework, a lingering conservative attitude to risk, hefty taxes on wealth and stock options, no tax relief for startups or R&D activities, and bureaucracy that diverts entrepreneurs from winning clients over completing forms, as big turn-offs for start-ups in the country.
“We need a political and economic reform to support SME operation and secure their valuable contribution to economy. The State should realise that entrepreneurship could create more jobs, and help diversify the Greek economy that is still heavily reliant on tourism, agriculture and shipping, to become a new mecca for tech millionaires,” Cournia urges.