‘I’ve heard of ultra-processed food, but can’t explain it’: Demystifying UPF confusion

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Confusion amongst consumers persists, with the latest research suggesting perceptions of UPF differ significantly. GettyImages/LordHenriVoton
Confusion amongst consumers persists, with the latest research suggesting perceptions of UPF differ significantly. GettyImages/LordHenriVoton

Related tags Ultra-processed food Upfield

What ‘ultra-processed food’ means to one consumer may not be what it means to another.

The term ‘ultra-processed food’, or UPF, is everywhere. It’s in the media, it’s blazoned across book covers, and it’s entering the consciousness of consumers.

But just because the term is omnipresent, does not mean it’s well understood. Confusion amongst consumers persists, with the latest research suggesting perceptions differ significantly.

What is ultra-processed food?

An obvious way of testing consumer understanding is to ask them straight: What is ultra-processed food?

In research conducted by Vypr, in which the innovation and intelligence platform asked its community of more than 75,000 consumers that exact question, half (50%) of respondents said they’d heard of the term ‘ultra-processed foods’, yet are unable to explain what it means. For Vypr, this suggests ‘significant awareness’, yet a clear need for more information.

Thirty percent of respondents said they had heard of it and can explain it, whereas 20% had never heard of it.

But zooming in on the 30% who said they could explain it revealed varying descriptions, ranging from ‘foods that have additives, colourings and go through processes to preserve their shelf life’ to ‘lots of added ingredients, preservatives, flavourings…unhealthy, but in moderation not too bad’.

UPF: A widely accepted definition

The most common definition of ultra-processed food comes from Nova, which splits level of processing into four groups: from raw and minimally processed foods; to processed culinary ingredients; processed food; and ultra-processed food. This last category is an ‘industrial creation’ by definition.

How concerned are consumers about UPF?

As to consumer perceptions around ultra-processed food, again, responses differ significantly. Just 18% of respondents had positive responses to UPF, with comments such as ‘I know they are not very healthy, but they taste good and convenient’ and ‘I am not really bothered about this, as long as it tastes good, I will buy it’.

Many more respondents felt negatively about ultra-processed foods, with some participants saying ‘they scare me’, ‘there is not enough scientific evidence now, it is not good for anyone’ and ‘they are addictive and unnatural – very harmful’.

A good number of participants (40%) offered neutral responses, such as ‘I don’t know what ultra-processed foods are’ and ‘I don’t really know if it’s good or bad’.

Vypr also conducted a Likert scale – which measures how people feel about a particular topic in surveys – suggesting 61% of consumers are very concerned about ultra-processed foods.

UPF: The number of ingredients matters

An obvious lack of consensus exists amongst consumers about what UPF means, and whether it’s unhealthy. But what is clear, is that the amount of ingredients in a product matters.

In collaboration with Vypr, category and insights consultancy Contigo Management Limited put two packets of 800g white sliced bread products to the test. Consumers were asked to select which bread they preferred; a cheaper option with more ingredients or a bread product double the price, but with fewer ingredients.

Twice as many consumers opted for the more expensive bread product containing fewer ingredients, with responses suggesting this offering was perceived to have ‘less artificial ingredients’ with ‘more ingredients I recognised’. Another respondent concluded it contained ‘fewer ingredients – seem as if it would be less processed’.

But when the price and visuals were overlaid, consumers went back to their normal shopping habits, explained Contigo founder Debbie Davies at IFE in London last month. “So they’re not necessarily looking at the ingredients lists back-of-pack [when shopping].”

Bread was also the focus of separate research conducted by Vypr, which sought to understand how much of an impact labelling a product as ‘ultra-processed’ would have on purchase decisions.

A blind test using a generic image of sliced white bread with either ‘Sliced white bread’ or ‘Ultra processed sliced white bread’ on pack revealed just 44% of respondents said they would buy the product labelled ‘ultra processed’.

Geography and demographics influence consumer perceptions

Taking a geographical approach to the topic, research conducted by insights innovation agency TRKR focused on Scotland – a country where a UPF category like ready meals over-trades.

When told that ready meals are classed as ultra-processed, and then asked whether that impacts their decision to buy them, 38% said being UPF doesn’t impact their buying behaviour. “For the majority, the fact that a ready meal is ultra-processed doesn’t massively impact their buying behaviour,” reiterated TRKR co-founder Mark Thomson at IFE.

TRKR also observed that perceptions around ultra-processing change depending on demographics. The older you are, the more aware you are of UPF, explained Thomson.

Consumers under 45 years of age are less aware of which UPF foods in general to avoid and try to seek out healthier meal options. For this age group, a lack of time and money can sometimes prove barriers to buying healthier options.

The over-45s are more aware of ultra-processed foods and accept that foods such as ready meals can be unhealthy.

Understanding these complexities is crucial for industry, suggested Thomson, who does not believe in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Instead, he told delegates it’s important to understand the needs of consumers and how they might differ according to geography or demographic.

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