Consumers are concerned about health risks of ultra-processed foods

The latest findings from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory shed light on the complexity of consumers’ food choices and the role of ultra-processed foods (UPF) therein. Among scientists and nutritionists, the risks of this type of food have been debated for years, however, the consumer’s perspective has been missing.

Ultra-processed food is currently a highly controversial topic. The definition is based on the NOVA classification and includes the familiar “junk foods” such as energy drinks and sodas, fried foods and chocolate bars. But it is not just the obvious “suspects” such as ready-to-eat meals; even seemingly healthier options such as (some) vegan cheeses and meat substitutes fall into the category of ultra-processed foods. These foods contain artificial ingredients such as protein isolates, emulsifiers and other additives.

The study, the first large-scale European consumer survey on the subject, consisted of a quantitative survey of 10,000 participants from 17 countries, and a qualitative part using the Citizen Participation Forum, EIT Food’s own European online community. A total of 89 European consumers participated in this part.

The key findings at a glance:

UPF are considered harmful to health

The survey found that European consumers are uneasy about the effects that ultra-processed foods could have on their health. The majority of respondents (65%) are concerned about the potential health risks of these products. For example, 67% believe that highly processed foods contribute to obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related health problems. In addition, 67% of consumers are uncomfortable with unfamiliar ingredients in their food.

Confusion over processing levels in foods

Although there are health concerns surrounding these types of foods, many consumers still choose to eat them. Only slightly more than half (56%) actively try to avoid processed foods.

The survey found that a lack of knowledge about food processing contributes to consumers’ uncertainty in making informed choices. Many are uncertain about the processing levels of different foods and overestimate or underestimate the degree of processing. As a result, many consumers likely underestimate the amount of ultra-processed foods they eat.

To illustrate, a majority (61%) of consumers correctly identified energy drinks as ultra-processed, but far fewer included vegan cheese (34%) and chocolate bars (22%) in the same (correct) category. Although 84% of consumers claimed to consume ultra-processed foods less than five times a week, the level of confusion suggests that this self-reporting underestimates actual consumption levels.

Interest in plant-based substitutes threatened by ultra-processed food concerns

More than half (54%) of European consumers prefer not to eat plant-based substitutes because they want to avoid ultra-processed foods. Vegans and vegetarians are less likely to avoid plant-based alternatives for this reason.

Reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods is not on the menu

Despite concerns about the health risks of highly processed foods, most consumers do not see themselves reducing the amounts they eat of them. Instead, they hope to strike a balance by trying to eat more homemade foods and limiting highly processed foods to when they are seen as “necessary”.

When exactly is ultra-processed food desired? Often at times when there is a need for food that can be eaten quickly and easily (or requires no preparation at all), or when looking for an affordable food choice. But for many consumers, ultra-processed foods are also a treat, foods that are tastier than homemade food, or they are snacks associated with social occasions.

Need for clarity from health authorities

The report shows that consumers lack the understanding about what ultra-processed foods are and how they affect their health.

Governments, manufacturers and scientists should work towards a clear definition of ultra-processed foods. In addition, it should be made clear, by educating consumers, what food processing means and what effects it can have on long-term and short-term health.

Finally, national dietary guidelines should clarify whether plant-based substitutes are ultra-processed foods and whether this matters to their overall health.

About EIT Food’s Consumer Observatory

EIT Food’s Consumer Observatory is a European knowledge base driving food systems transformation by providing consumer insights for the agri-food sector. The initiative is made possible by EIT Food, the world’s largest and most dynamic food innovation community.Dutch research firm Future of Food Institute is one of the partners of the Consumer Obervatory.

Read more about Future of Food Institute, de Consumer Observatory and EIT Food. Download the free report here.

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