EIT report confirms “widespread confusion” about ultra-processed food

That ’UPF’ is an ill-defined term that confuses consumers should not come as a surprise to anyone. A recent survey of 10,000 consumers in 17 countries has put into numbers exactly how confused consumers in Europe are when it comes to UPFs (ultra-processed foods), and it is not looking good.

The survey, published by the EU’s European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), concludes that there is “widespread confusion” about ultra-processed food. This is illustrated by a survey in which consumers were asked to categorise various food and drink products as ultra-processed, moderately processed, basic processed or minimally/unprocessed. Consumers did the best at this when it came to energy drinks, which 61% correctly identified as ultra-processed. On the other hand, an astonishing 41% thought that raw eggs had gone through some level of processing.

Overall, unprocessed or minimally processed foods tended to be estimated as more processed than they are by about 75% of consumers. And processing was highly associated with industry; most consumers did not consider more traditional foods like kimchi, sourdough or wine as UPF.

Particularly interesting was how consumers classified plant-based substitutes compared to their animal-based originals. The plant-based options included in the survey – vegan chicken pieces and vegan cheese – were deemed as UPFs by a third of consumers and were more likely to be seen as UPF than their animal-based counterparts (34% and 36% vs 12% and 16%). Half of the respondents in the survey claimed to avoid plant-based substitutes due to their high degree of processing.

Despite not knowing what UPFs are, consumers have an overwhelmingly negative image of them with 65% saying that they are unhealthy. 56% said they try to avoid UPFs and only 16% admitted to eating UPFs five or more times per week (less among health-conscious consumers). This number is obviously not true in reality; most consumers eat much more UPFs than that – whether that be in the form of breakfast cereal, packaged bread or fizzy drinks. In countries such as Germany, 50% of the diet is thought to be UPFs. EIT concludes: “This shows that while UPF are ubiquitous, they are sometimes invisible in consumers’ everyday food choices”.

Many consumers indicated that they are aware that there is a place for UPFs in a healthy diet. 31% of respondents said they believe that UPF can be healthy, while another quarter neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement. Convenience, taste and affordability were quoted as key reasons for sometimes consuming UPFs.

EIT’s report makes a series of recommendations to help consumers to make informed decisions. A key theme here is that more and clearer communication around the topic is needed: “Health institutions and scientists need to define UPF and make more conclusive and substantiated statements about their long-term healthiness as well as short-term healthiness.” For food manufacturers, the main recommendation is to focus on cleaner labels – whether that is for a snack bar or a plant-based meat substitute. 

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