Does it matter that consumers don’t understand the term ‘ultra-processed’?

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Consumer misunderstanding around UPFs persists. Image Source: Getty Images/wildpixel
Consumer misunderstanding around UPFs persists. Image Source: Getty Images/wildpixel

Related tags ultra processed food Orange juice NOVA classification processed food

Consumers have consistently been shown not to understand what the term ‘ultra-processed’ means. But how much does this matter?

The term ‘ultra-processed food’ has an iron grip on the public imagination. While many consumers don’t know precisely what it means, and are unable to define it, they know one thing for sure: they don’t want it.

For example, a study by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF)​ in 2017, asked consumers to select foods they believed were ultra-processed. On the one hand, participants had a low success rate in doing so. On the other, the study still revealed that most consumers (69%) believed it was better to cook from scratch than use processed foods.  

Furthermore, research this year​ showed that when asked, 70% of consumers could not define precisely what UPFs were, although 50% had heard of the term. Even the 30% who claimed they could define it were by no means unanimous on a definition.

Why is it that this lack of understanding what UPFs are, and which foods are UPF, persists? And does it matter that it does?

Why is consumer understanding of UPFs so low?

A recent study by marketing agency Savanta ComRes only further confirms low levels of consumer understanding. According to the study, 45% of UK consumers admitted they would not be able to identify an ultra-processed food.

“I think it is a term that is fairly new to the public,” nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire suggested to FoodNavigator.

The Nova Classification

The Nova classification is a food classification system developed in 2009 by Brazilian researcher Carlos Monteiro. It puts food into four categories, by degree of processing.

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (for example eggs, nuts, fruit and vegetables)
  2. Processed ingredients (for example oils, butter, and honey)
  3. Processed foods (for example smoked and cured meat, fresh bread and fresh cheese)
  4. Ultra-processed foods (for example pizzas, burgers, pre-packaged bread and distilled spirits)

The classification has been criticised for being incomplete, as not all foods​ it defines as ‘ultra-processed’ are considered as 'unhealthy', as well as relying on levels of processing (differentiating between home and factory processing​) rather than levels of nutrition. It was originally conceived as a sociopolitical, rather than nutritional​, guideline. Last year, a study found that Nova aligns with consumer perceptions​ of what UPF means. 

While no universally accepted definition of ultra-processed foods exists, the Nova classification’s is the most widely accepted.

“It is also a term that can lead to confusions as the categories are subjective so often it’s not clear whether certain foods are ultra-processed or not, and whether this even matters for our health. Some foods contain preservatives or vitamins to make them safer and more nutritious. This isn’t bad for health.”

Because of their confusion, consumers can sometimes mistake minimally processed foods, such as orange juice, for those that are ultra-processed.

Orange juice, for example, because it ‘comes in a carton’, may lead consumers to believe that ‘something has been added or done to modify it from its natural state,’ Derbyshire suggested. 

Some consumers believe orange juice is UPF. In fact it is minimally processed. Image Source: Getty Images/Carlai

Does it matter that consumers don’t know what UPFs are?

While the term has been criticised for being based around a food’s degree of processing, rather than based strictly on nutrition (unlike terms such as, say, high in fat, salt and sugar, or HFSS), its defenders argue that by the definition most​, if not all, UPFs are unhealthy​, and it is a way of describing a ‘dietary pattern’. 

How much does consumer lack of understanding really matter? “It would be useful for them to know that this term is based the Nova classification, [which] could describe most of the foods we eat! It is also important to consider that a level of processing is needed to keep foods safe and nutritious,” Derbyshire told us.

Fortifying foods with key micronutrients can, she suggested, make them more likely to be classified as UPFs. “Adding micronutrient fortificants adds another ingredient thus skewing such foods higher towards becoming classified as an UPF.” Fortified foods are not always ultra-processed foods, however.

It is important, suggested Derbyshire, that consumers understand the nuances in the definition. “They need to understand the Nova definition and its limitations, particularly the subjectivity of the categories and their limited relevance to health.

WHO: Ultra-processed foods kill

According to a recent report​ by the World Health Organisation (WHO), ultra-processed foods (along with tobacco, fossil fuels and alcohol), are linked to 2.7m deaths annually in Europe alone, and 19m worldwide. The WHO believes that UPFs are often marketed to those in deprived areas most consistently.

Industry has pushed back against the report, with one trade association, FoodDrinkEurope (FDE), calling it ‘outrageously misleading.’

“Secondly, consumers need to upskill on making holistic assessments about the food they eat which balance ‘negative’ nutrients such as sugar [and] saturated fat with the positive nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre that many foods and drinks can provide. I suspect many are already doing this on a day-to-day basis.”

Is the HFSS category flawed?

One alternative to UPFs as a category through which to define ‘unhealthy’ food or ‘junk food’ is HFSS. Many people view this category as more robust and more linked to nutrition than UPF.

Derbyshire agrees. “I think the HFSS category is a clearer way to educate consumers and help them to make informed choices that align more strongly with health outcomes.”

However, there is a caveat. HFSS, she suggested, “is a narrow categorisation skewed towards less favourable nutrients.”

The European Food Safety Authority, she told us, suggested in its recent assessment on Nutrient Profiling that positive nutrients, such as potassium and fibre, should be taken into account as well as salt, fat and sugar. Both are consumed in insufficient amounts.

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