Unwrapping perceptions of ultra processed foods

Posted: 11 March 2024 | | No comments yet

In navigating the intricate dialogue surrounding ultra-processed foods, Klaus Grunert highlights the need for unified efforts in promoting clarity and accountability from the food sector.

checking label

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

The ultra-processed foods (UPF) debate is a new one, filled with nuances and complexities and conflicting arguments. But where does that leave consumers? In a study of nearly 10,000 consumers across 18 European countries, the Consumer Observatory, powered by EIT Food, gleaned consumer insights on the UPF debate in ‘Consumer Perceptions Unwrapped: ultra-processed foods’.

The study found that whilst the majority of consumers think UPF are detrimental to both their health and of the planet, many don’t feel equipped with the information to make informed decisions. The report revealed that there is widespread confusion around processing levels in foods. This confusion is coupled with fears of what processing level means for health and how this is impacting consumers’ priorities on their health versus sustainability and the health of the planet which was revealed in a spotlight surrounding plant-based alternatives. Finally, there is a lack of will and ability for consumers to reduce their consumption of UPF.


Confusion around processing levels in foods

The ultra-processed food debate is still fairly new. This has led to a wide and confusing array of information on ultra-processed food being told to consumers. This confusion when it comes to identifying UPF has also resulted in an underestimation of how much UPF consumers have in their diet, with 84% of people claiming to eat ultra-processed foods fewer than five times a week. But why are consumers confused and underestimating how much UPF they eat?

Across the food sector there is confusion and controversies around the classification of UPF. With no universal classification system, some answers may be right or wrong according to different standards. This was displayed by the finding that only a fifth of participants correctly classified chocolate bars as ultra-processed in the study. This is a symptom of a lack of sector-wide consensus on what foods are classified as UPF, how to include them into your lifestyle in a healthy and balanced way, and the health implications of processing levels, leaving consumers largely in the dark on the topic.


Processing fears and views of sustainability

The study also revealed some interesting findings about where sustainability factors into consumers’ decision-making. Firstly, the report found that 60% of consumers see UPF as bad for the environment and only 17% view them as sustainable foods. This was linked to consumers connecting sustainability with naturalness, viewing foods which grow naturally without industrial interference or processing as sustainable and foods which have been through processing as unnatural and therefore unsustainable.

Changing appetites: Adapting to evolving tastes in processed foods

The study found that consumers are factoring in the product’s processing level into their decision-making which has created a pain point for plant-based substitutes. Just over a third of European consumers view plant-based substitutes as UPF. This has led to over half of consumers actively avoiding plant-based substitutes out of processing fears.

Consumers are having to juggle prioritising between their personal nutrition and health and the health of the planet. This is potentially a huge barrier to the green transition and one that actors across the food value chain should be aware of and act upon to increase access to credible information about processing.


Willingness and ability to reduce ultra-processed food is limited

Despite two-thirds of participants in the study saying they don’t like their food to have ingredients they don’t know, just 56 percent try to avoid UPF. UPF is not typically front-of-mind for consumers when it comes to making decisions in the supermarket. Three factors which are front-of-mind however, are taste, convenience and price which limit consumer’s willingness to cut out UPF. 

Consumers often stated choosing to eat UPF as they taste good and viewed them as a treat and not something they seek to cut out. In addition, 41 percent of consumers felt that UPF are more convenient compared to minimally processed foods due to their ease of preparation which is typically little to no preparation at all. Finally, UPF are viewed as the cheap option. A significant restriction to consumers reducing their intake of ultra-processed foods was time and money.

One respondent answered: “Fast food or TV-dinners are cheap – you can’t make the same from scratch for the same price. However, I think that the moral or health price-tag is expensive.“ Consumers juggle a range of factors when making decisions and this answer summarises how people attempt to prioritise convenience, price, taste alongside the health and environmental implications of their choices.

For the price, taste and convenience offered by UPF, most consumers aren’t rushing to cut them out entirely from their diets, but seek to moderate their intake and keep them in balance with less processed foods which are homemade.

Implications and moving forward – A united effort and accountability


As a first step, health institutions, scientists and governments need to unite to define which foods and beverages constitute as UPF to both provide clarity and prevent further misinformation and confusion.

Manufacturers and retailers have a key role to play in communicating information to consumers through labelling and product promotion. Governments also need to be proactive in their efforts to gain consumer trust and provide clarity. This can be achieved through educating consumers on the basics of food processing and how processing impacts the overall healthiness of a product. Accountability can be taken by scientists and health institutions to make conclusive and substantiated statements about the health implications of UPF and how UPF can be incorporated into a balanced and healthy diet.

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. The Consumer Observatory, powered by EIT Food, drives food systems transformation by providing consumer insights and guidance for agrifood stakeholders and offering market trend services to enable informed actions and decision-making toward a healthier, more sustainable and resilient future. Find out more here.

About the author

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


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