Is UPF just another short-lived health fad, like Paleo or Atkins?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Is the 'UPF furore' just a passing phase? GettyImages/Peter Dazeley
Is the 'UPF furore' just a passing phase? GettyImages/Peter Dazeley

Related tags Ultra-processed food

Industry has observed the rapid rise and sharp decline of many a food fad. Is consumer distaste for ultra-processing just another to add to the list?

Diet fads come and go. Low-fat foods were all the rage in the 1990s, but have since fallen out of favour; the low-carb Atkins diet gained widespread popularity in the early 2000s but is now passé; and even the Palaeolithic Diet (Paleo) is past peak popularity.

The latest health trend to come onto the scene is avoiding ultra-processed food (UPF). Will it be as short-lived as others on the scene, or is consumer concern around ultra-processing here to stay?

Ultra-processed food: More than a fad?

The answer is not straightforward. According to market research Mintel, which recently surveyed more than 1,000 consumers aged 16 years and over in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Poland, UPF concern could be linked to age.

Younger consumers appear to be slightly more convinced that the ‘UPF furore’ is a passing phrase, according to Alice Pilkington, senior global food and drink analyst at Mintel. Almost half (49%) of French consumers aged 16-24 feel this way.

These consumers tend to have a more short-term mindset, looking for fun, flavourful experiences, both of which ultra-processed foods offer.

What is ultra-processed food?

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.

But overall, European consumers believe UPF concerns are here to stay. Only around one-third believe that UPF products are just another healthy eating fad.

UPF concerns spark cooking from scratch trend

“With so many different and often short-lived health trends currently bouncing around on social media, it would be tempting to think that the current UPF furore will also quickly die down,” Pilkington told FoodNavigator.

“However, that many Europeans do not think it’s just another healthy eating fad demonstrates the need for food and drink brands to take this seriously. Indeed, it would be arguable that the UPF focus marks a watershed moment for the industry.”

Why are consumers concerned about ultra-processed food?

Recent research has linked ultra-processed food consumption with poor health outcomes, including a greater risk of developing cancer​ and a higher mortality rate​. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also raised the alarm​, linking ultra-processed food, alcohol, tobacco, and fossil fuel industries to millions of deaths in Europe every year.

But not all UPF research findings are 100% negative. A study published in The Lancet last year concluded that UPF consumption can often be linked to multimorbidity​, but not all UPFs: no link was found between multimorbidity and consumption of UPFs including breakfast cereals, packaged bread, and plant-based alternatives.

As to how the UPF craze is impacting purchase behaviour, consumers say they’re cooking more at home rather than relying on convenience-focused packaged foods.

French and Spanish consumers are most likely to be doing this, with 71% and 68% respectively saying they’re significantly increasing how much they cook at home as a result of growing UPF concerns.

But it’s not only those on the continent spending more time in the kitchen. Just over half (54%) of British consumers say they’re cooking more from scratch too, which according to Mintel, is likely to pose a ‘significant threat’ on the prepared foods sector.

When it comes to UPF, nutrition matters

The survey revealed that when it comes to consumer perceptions of ultra-processed food, nutrition matters. Many consumers are willing to overlook the level of processing if the food is packed with nutrients.

Around half of Europeans (with the exception of France) say the nutrients – for example, protein and vitamins – in a food product are more ​important than how heavily processed it is. Almost three in five (57%) Spanish consumers feel this way. Parents, too, share this view.

“Foods that can tick several nutritional boxes for their children, even though they may be highly processed, offer time-poor parents a shortcut way to ensure that their children are still getting what they need,” explained Pilkington.

“Affordable, nutrient-rich meal ideas can help reassure parents that their children are meeting their nutritional needs, whilst products that contribute to five-a-day fruit and vegetable targets and fibre intake will also chime.”

Ultra-processed food confusion persists

Although consumers appear to have strong views about UPF, whether they truly understand what ultra-processing means is unlikely. 

A 2021 survey​ conducted by YouGov on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation revealed a lack of understanding about which foods are included in the ultra-processed category – at least in the UK.

When asked to select ultra-processed foods from a list, just eight percent selected canned baked beans, nine percent chose low fat fruit yoghurt, 12% selected ice cream, 19% pre-packaged sliced bread from a supermarket, 26% ready-made pasta sauces, and 28% breakfast cereals with added sugar.

The survey was designed to catch consumers out: all products on the list are categorised as UPF according to the Nova classification system.

In research conducted more recently​ by innovation and intelligence platform Vypr, half of respondents said they’d heard of the term ‘ultra-processed food’, but were unable to explain what it meant.

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