Consumers fear health risks of ultra-processed foods - but lack guidance needed to make healthy choices

Friday, March 15, 2024

Consumers fear health risks of ultra-processed foods - but lack guidance needed to make healthy choices

A new pan-European study from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory reveals that consumers across Europe are concerned about the impact of ultra-processed foods on their health. Yet, a lack of awareness, understanding and means are preventing people from making informed, healthy choices. EIT Food is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.

• New study of nearly 10,000 consumers across 17 European countries finds the majority of consumers think ultra-processed foods are bad for their health

• Despite these concerns, there is widespread confusion about ultra-processed foods in consumers’ diets

• The ‘Consumer perceptions unwrapped: ultra-processed foods’ report makes a series of recommendations to food authorities, manufacturers and retailers to support consumers to make informed decisions.


The research, combining a survey of 10,000 consumers from 17 European countries alongside a follow-up qualitative study, found that the majority (65%) of European consumers believe that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy, and that they will cause health issues later in life. For example, 67% believe that ultra-processed foods contribute to obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related health issues.

What's more, 67% of European consumers state that they do not like it when their foods contain ingredients they do not recognise, and four in 10 (40%) do not trust that ultra-processed foods are regulated well enough by authorities to ensure these foods are safe and healthy in the long term.

Ultra-processed foods include packaged snacks, soda, sugary cereals, energy drinks and chocolate bars, as well as foods such as ready-made sauces and dips, ready meals and salad dressings. Many plant-based substitutes for animal products, such as vegan cheese, are also categorised as ultra-processed based on the NOVA classification system because they typically contain ingredients such as protein isolates, seed oils, emulsifiers, gums, additives.

In addition to concerns around health, six in 10 (60%) consider ultra-processed foods to be bad for the environment, linked to the perception of unnaturalness, presence of chemicals and industrial production.


Confusion around processing levels in foods
Despite these serious health concerns, consumers continue to choose processed foods, with only half (56%) reporting that they try to avoid buying processed foods.

As well as convenience, price, and taste, the study shows that a lack of understanding as to how foods are processed is contributing to consumers' uncertainty when choosing which foods to buy. Furthermore, many are confused and uncertain about the extent to which their food is processed, both over- and underestimating how processed various food products are.

For example, while six in 10 consumers (61%) identified energy drinks as ultra-processed, just 34% and 22% respectively correctly identified vegan cheese and chocolate bars as being ultra-processed.

Therefore, while 84% of people profess that they eat ultra-processed foods fewer than five times a week, given the results showing the level of confusion on levels of processing, this is very likely an underestimation by consumers themselves.


Processing fears putting consumers off plant-based alternatives
The research also indicates that concerns over processing level are putting many consumers off choosing plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products.

Plant-based substitutes (such as vegetarian chicken pieces and vegan cheese slices) are seen as ultra-processed foods by about a third (36% and 34%) of European consumers. Additionally, these foods were more likely to be seen as ultra-processed than their animal-based originals.

Over half (54%) of European consumers do not eat plant-based substitutes because they want to avoid ultra-processed foods, particularly amongst meat and dairy eaters – but without any indication that they are choosing minimally processed plant-based options instead. Vegans and vegetarians, however, are less likely to avoid plant-based alternatives for this reason.


Willingness and ability to reduce ultra-processed food is limited
The qualitative study demonstrates that the primary motivations for eating ultra-processed foods are their convenience, price, and taste. Convenience comprises ease of preparation (or no preparation at all), while the price of ultra-processed foods is seen as often lower than whole or minimally processed foods. Finally, many consumers prefer the taste of ultra-processed foods over home-made food, and see them as a treat.

Most consumers do not see themselves reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods they eat but hope to keep them in balance with eating less processed and more home-made foods.

However, consumers with the fewest means (time and money) will be the most restricted and least empowered in choosing which foods to buy, and will likely not prioritise choosing foods according to their processing level.


Food sector urged to improve labelling, education and guidance on ultra-processed foods
The report, titled 'Consumer perceptions unwrapped: ultra-processed foods', makes a series of recommendations to food sector authorities, manufacturers and retailers, with the aim of fostering consumer trust and supporting consumers to make informed, healthier decisions about the foods they are choosing.

These include recommendations that:

• Health institutions and scientists need to define ultra-processed foods and make more conclusive and substantiated statements about their short- and long-term healthiness.

• Health institutions need to consider how to communicate with and educate consumers about what food processing means, what it can look like, and what effects it can have on health.

• National food recommendations need to clarify whether plant-based substitutes are ultra-processed foods and whether this matters for their overall healthiness.


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

The latest findings from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory demonstrate a clear knowledge gap in how consumers identify, understand and engage with how their food is produced. Giving consumers clearer labelling, guidance and education could help them to better understand and engage with this issue, but it’s also important that concerns over processed food are considered in the wider context of people’s diets and wellbeing. It's also crucial that we continue to bolster our understanding and agreement of how we classify, evaluate and label foods, so that our advice to consumers is informed by the latest science.

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