Euroviews. How do we unwrap people's perceptions of ultra-processed foods?

A convenience store customer walks past a shelf of salty snacks in Boston, July 2005
A convenience store customer walks past a shelf of salty snacks in Boston, July 2005 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Klaus Grunert
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Providing consumers with information on how they can incorporate ultra-processed foods into a balanced diet and whether processing level correlates to healthiness, Klaus Grunert writes.

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What does the term "ultra-processed foods" mean to you? Is it a lengthy list of ingredients, guilty-pleasure treats, or just junk food?

How we classify foods has huge implications for consumer decision-making and, in turn, the food industry as a whole. 

In recent years, food processing has become a hotly debated topic throughout the food and health industries. But where do consumers fit into the debate?

In a study of nearly 10,000 consumers across 17 European countries, the Consumer Observatory, powered by EIT Food, gleaned consumer insights on the ultra-processed foods debate by pulling back the curtain to find out if consumers care about processing levels and how much this impacts their consumption habits.

The Consumer Observatory found the majority of consumers do in fact care about ultra-processed foods and believe these foods are detrimental to their health and the environment, but many don’t feel they know enough about the topic to make changes to their lifestyle.

What did the study reveal?

Contradicting concerns

Two-thirds of European consumers believe that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy and will likely cause health issues later in life. 

These health issues which consumers are linking to ultra-processed foods (UPF) include obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related issues. 

So with these concerns, have consumers all turned against ultra-processed foods? The answer is no. 

Despite these growing concerns, only 56% of consumers try to avoid buying them.

Ultra-processed foods require little to no preparation; they’re filled with ingredients designed to make them taste good and they’re perceived to be a cheaper alternative to minimally processed foods.
Fruits are pictured in a discounter in Frankfurt, September 2023
Fruits are pictured in a discounter in Frankfurt, September 2023AP Photo/Michael Probst

So why do consumers still want to eat foods which include ingredients they don’t understand and with unknown health implications?

The three driving causes of UPF consumption found in the study were convenience, price and taste. 

Ultra-processed foods require little to no preparation; they’re filled with ingredients designed to make them taste good and they’re perceived to be a cheaper alternative to minimally processed foods.

This trend was especially apparent for consumers with fewer means (time and money) who are more restricted in their food decision-making, meaning the processing level simply isn’t a priority when choosing what food to buy at the shop.

Enter confusion

The study also revealed that consumers find the UPF debate confusing. For example, while six in 10 consumers (61%) identified energy drinks as ultra-processed, just 34% and 22% respectively thought vegan cheese and chocolate bars to be ultra-processed.

This is likely due to the lack of sector-wide consensus when classifying foods based on their processing level. 

This has led to an oversaturation in the information being fed to consumers, some of which is helpful and some of which is conflicting or simply misinformation.

There’s also a lack of clarity on the healthiness and nutritional implications that processing levels have on food, consumers who have been led to believe that a 0% fat fruit yoghurt is a healthy dessert or snack are now being told that these yoghurts are ultra-processed. 

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Shoppers buy food in a supermarket in London, August 2022
Shoppers buy food in a supermarket in London, August 2022AP Photo/Frank Augstein

The study found that consumers have been left disempowered to make healthy choices as they lack clear guidance.

When classifying foods based on their processing levels, there has been contestation around plant-based alternatives. 

Under the NOVA system, for example, plant-based alternatives fit into the ultra-processed category. However, plant-based alternatives are positioned as healthier for people and the planet than their meat counterparts. 

This has led to a lack of consumer trust, with the study finding that over half of European consumers don’t eat plant-based substitutes out of processing fears. This has huge implications for the plant-based industry and the green transition.

How does this study fit into the wider debate?

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Consensus, clarity, accountability

Currently, food scientists, manufacturers and authorities cannot come to a consensus on what constitutes ultra-processed foods and their health implications. 

Agreeing upon a definition is the first step to closing these knowledge gaps. Implementing a universal classification system would remove the need for speculation and misinformation, enabling consumers to receive a clearer understanding of the UPF debate. 

With this consensus, further steps can be taken on health guidance, labelling and regulation.

The industry is failing the consumer in terms of communication. Conflicting information is being fed to consumers, leaving them disempowered from making healthy and informed decisions.

40% of European consumers do not trust that their government is doing enough to regulate ultra-processed foods and ensure that they’re safe for consumption.
Workers process chickens at a factory in Freemont, NE, December 2019
Workers process chickens at a factory in Freemont, NE, December 2019AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Instead, the food industry needs to be proactive across the board by recognising that consumers’ perceptions of UPF may be hindering growth. 

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Labelling is one of the most effective methods of communicating from producer to consumer. Manufacturers may also think about other ways of informing consumers about the pros and cons of various types of food processing.

Retailers also have a role to play in gaining consumer trust and communicating a clearer message on the UPF debate. 

This may be through promoting minimally-processed products in discount deals or by marking them as less processed on the shelves, but also by providing information on different forms of food processing and their implications for health and sustainability.

Is there a way to strike a balance?

40% of European consumers do not trust that their government is doing enough to regulate ultra-processed foods and ensure that they’re safe for consumption. 

It’s clear governments have a role to play in providing clarity on the debate. This clarity can come through education on the basic principles of food processing so that consumers can feel empowered when facing conflicting information.

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National food recommendations also need to clarify whether plant-based substitutes are ultra-processed foods and whether this matters for their overall healthiness. This approach needs to be consistent and agreed on to convey a clear message.

So are UPF bad for you? It seems clear that increased exposure to some types of UPF goes hand in hand with a range of health issues. However, the role of processing as compared to the role of the ingredients that are bundled into these products is still not clear to scientists, let alone consumers.

Scientists and health institutions are needed to weigh in on this debate. Health institutions need to offer conclusive and evidence-backed statements on the long-term health implications and short-term nutritional impacts of UPF. 

Providing consumers with information on how they can incorporate UPF into a balanced diet and whether processing level correlates to healthiness. 

Consumers are at the heart of our food systems and gaining their insight on these key topics and debates is a vital component of the transformation of our European and global food systems. 

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In the end, all of the information available should be boiled down for consumers to empower them with the information they need and allow them to make healthy and informed choices.

Klaus Grunert is Professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University and Director of the EIT Food Consumer Observatory.

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