Are Consumers Avoiding Processed Foods?

Confused consumer at grocery

Recent surveys affirm that shoppers are often confused about what processed foods are and how they affect their diets.

A recent survey is bringing to light consumer sentiments that may have implications in the center store and packaged foods categories. According to new research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), one in five consumers say that eating fewer processed foods is one way to eat healthier and 70% report that they don’t completely understand or can explain what a processed food really is. 

IFIC set out to determine consumers’ knowledge and attitudes about processed foods, as healthy eating remains a priority for most people. “From public health to pop culture, we have seen a significant increase in interest surrounding processed foods in recent years,” said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsa, president and CEO of IFIC, adding that debates about the healthfulness of processed foods stem in part from different classification systems featured in scientific literature. “Amidst the emerging evidence and headlines, current scientific consensus and consumer perspectives are often excluded. As an educational nonprofit sitting at the intersection of science, food, and the consumer, we believe exploring consumer insights on processed foods is timely, needed, and important.”  

IFIC’s “Public Perceptions of Processed Foods study also revealed that consumers rank consuming more fruits and vegetables as the main way to eat healthier. In addition, researchers polled participants on what words or phrases help them determine if a food is good for them or not, and the top responses included “no artificial ingredients” (34%), “no additives” (26%), “organic” (22%), “no added sugar” (19%) and “natural” (19%).  

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The findings align with the notion that consumers have moved beyond fads to embrace the idea of balanced eating, but affirm there are still gaps in how to achieve such balance. For example, about half (53%) of respondents said that processed foods can be part of a healthy diet and many report that they choose processed foods for convenience, taste and shelf life reasons. “It’s clear consumers are eating processed foods, yet it’s also clear they’re confused about what is considered a processed food,” said Alyssa Pike, IFIC’s senior manager, nutrition communications. 

Other recent market research has amplified consumer perceptions and misperceptions about processed foods. In its “2024 Global Food and Drink Trends” report, Mintel highlighted the growing scrutiny of processing in the food and drink industry. “Fueled by discussions about highly, overly or ultra-processed food, feelings about processing will inspire consumers to look more closely at ingredients, nutrition and production. A growing awareness of different levels of processing will make way for greater potential for minimally processed food and drink that focus on the positive aspects of food-processing techniques, such as those that enhance nutrition, inhibit contaminant formation or improve sustainability,” the analysts wrote.

In a recent webinar on “What’s Next in Wellness,” NIQ focused on the issue of ultra-processed foods. “The consumer is being introduced to the idea of ‘ultra-processed’ in many instances. In much of the media coverage, they are hearing that that ultra-processed is bad and there are a lot of ailments that are caused by ultra-processed foods. But the truth of the matter is there still a lot of confusion of what ultra-processed means,” said Sherry Frey, VP, total wellness, at NIQ.

She also noted that the categorical classifications published in scientific literature, like a recent Brazilian study featuring “Nova” scores for ultra-processed foods, have gained attention and that NIQ is doing a deeper dive into nutrition information and ingredients to create its science-based definition of ultra-processed foods. “We think there is a lot of opportunity to look into this beyond categorical definitions,” she added. For example, 22% of U.S. food and beverage qualify as “ultra processed” using current NIQ Product Insight definitions, compared to 78% from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute.

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