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Euroviews: Unpacking Perceptions of Ultra-Processed Foods

What Does “Ultra-Processed Foods” Mean to You?

Is it a lengthy list of ingredients, guilty-pleasure treats, or just junk food? How we classify foods significantly impacts consumer decision-making and, consequently, the entire food industry. In recent years, food processing has sparked intense debate within the food and health sectors. But where do consumers fit into this discussion?

Consumer Perspectives on Ultra-Processed Foods

A study involving nearly 10,000 consumers across 17 European countries by the Consumer Observatory, powered by EIT Food, explored consumers’ views on ultra-processed foods (UPFs). The study aimed to understand if consumers care about processing levels and how this affects their eating habits.

Key Findings from the Study

Concerns About Health

The majority of consumers do care about UPFs, believing these foods are harmful to their health and the environment. However, many feel they lack sufficient knowledge to make lifestyle changes.

  • Health Issues: Two-thirds of European consumers believe UPFs are unhealthy and could cause health problems like obesity and diabetes later in life. Despite these concerns, only 56% actively try to avoid buying them.

Why Do Consumers Still Buy UPFs?

Despite knowing the potential health risks, consumers continue to purchase UPFs due to:

  1. Convenience: UPFs require little to no preparation.
  2. Price: They are often seen as a cheaper alternative to minimally processed foods.
  3. Taste: These foods are designed to taste good.

This trend is especially pronounced among those with limited time and financial resources, for whom the level of food processing is not a priority when shopping.

Confusion in the UPF Debate

Consumers find the UPF debate confusing. For example, while 61% identified energy drinks as ultra-processed, only 34% and 22% considered vegan cheese and chocolate bars to be ultra-processed, respectively. This confusion stems from the lack of consensus on food classification based on processing levels and the mixed messages consumers receive.

Lack of Clear Guidance

Consumers are left disempowered to make healthy choices due to unclear guidance on processing levels and their health implications. Disagreement over classifications, especially regarding plant-based alternatives, adds to the confusion. For instance, the NOVA system categorizes plant-based substitutes as ultra-processed, yet these are often marketed as healthier options. This inconsistency undermines consumer trust, with many avoiding plant-based substitutes due to processing fears.

The Need for Consensus and Clarity

Food scientists, manufacturers, and authorities need to agree on what constitutes ultra-processed foods and their health impacts. Establishing a universal classification system could eliminate speculation and misinformation, providing consumers with clearer information. With a consensus, further steps can be taken regarding health guidance, labeling, and regulation.

Improving Communication and Trust

The food industry must improve communication to help consumers make informed decisions. Effective labeling and transparent information about the pros and cons of different types of food processing are essential. Retailers can also promote minimally-processed products and provide clear information on food processing’s health and sustainability implications.

Balancing the Debate

Forty percent of European consumers do not trust their government to regulate UPFs adequately. Governments need to educate the public on food processing principles, empowering consumers to navigate conflicting information. National food recommendations should clarify the status of plant-based substitutes and their health implications, conveying a consistent message.


While UPFs are associated with various health issues, the debate on their overall impact is ongoing. Scientists and health institutions must provide conclusive, evidence-based statements on the long-term and short-term impacts of UPFs. Empowering consumers with clear, accurate information is crucial for enabling healthy and informed choices. Ultimately, consumer insights are vital for transforming food systems in Europe and globally.

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