Ultra-processed foods: expert stresses importance of consumer communication

By Olivia Brown

- Last updated on GMT

© vovashevchuk / Getty Images
© vovashevchuk / Getty Images

Related tags Ultra-processed food processed food Nutrition

Following significant controversy over the health implications of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), Mintel urges brands to promote self-education on the topic whilst improving transparency to retain consumer trust.

Consumers will likely seek minimally processed products following recent headlines spotlighting the potential health implications associated with UPF consumption, Alex Beckett, director of Mintel, tells NutraIngredients.

Yet, following new research suggesting that not all UPFs are harmful to health, Beckett asserts that companies should focus on communicating the benefits that processing can offer, such as lower costs and enhanced nutrition.

Growing controversy

Over recent months, there has been growing concerns over the health implications associated with the consumption of UPFs. Research ​has increasingly linked increased consumption of UPFs with adverse outcomes, such as altered lipoprotein profiles, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. With increasing consumer awareness of the health risks, scrutiny over the processing methods used by the food industry has been intensifying.

Yet, a recent study​ published in The Lancet suggests that whilst certain types of UPFs may increase risk of disease, such health adversities are dependent on the overall composition of the product. It concludes that products containing nutrients such as fibre exert beneficial effects and prevent disease progression, further adding to recent arguments​ that the vilification of all UPFs is an “oversimplification”.

The researchers observe that ultra-processed breads and cereals, as well as plant-based alternatives, are not associated with disease risk, whilst animal-based products and artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages increase risk. The researchers conclude that UPFs should not be avoided but consumption should be limited.

Consumer communication

Beckett explains that whilst the demand for minimally processed products will continue to rise following the controversy, this trend for cleaner-labelled produce was already prevalent.

"Our research into healthy eating has found that 70% of UK adults try to avoid ultra-processed foods. This includes 59% of under-25s and peaks at 76% of over-55s, illustrating how younger people are bigger users of convenience foods,” he asserts.

A ‘Global Food and Drinks Trends for 2024’ report by Mintel states that the heightened demand for clean label will make way for minimally processed alternatives that should focus on the positive aspects of food-processing techniques, such as those that enhance nutrition, inhibit contaminant formation, or improve sustainability.

Beckett adds: “Ultimately, pioneer brands will offer a UPF alternative to other brands, and consumers’ expectations will be raised. If they can do it, why can't that brand? The trouble is, UPF-free treats are often less affordable, and too many people are still struggling financially."

Beckett emphasised that demand for ultra-processed foods will remain and it will be up to brands to provide the appropriate level of detail about their processing methods..

 “Greater transparency around the manufacturing process is crucial. But the level of detail is debatable. If you’re about to enjoy an ice cream on a hot day, you’re not going to bother following an on-pack QR code explaining the hydrophilic properties of the emulsifiers, first,” he stresses.

He notes that enlightenment doesn’t necessarily lead to action but "giving consumers the option to self-educate, in some way, wins trust”.

"With food prices still high and UPF so endemic, most consumers won’t have any choice but to continue buying UPF. The difference is that more people will now be more aware of the health implications. And for those who have the luxury of choice and the luxury of time to scrutinise ingredient lists, comparisons will be made at point of sale,” he adds. 

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