In a survey undertaken by YouGov on behalf of the BNF, 70% of British adults said they had never heard of the term ultra-processed foods before participating.
The term ultra-processed foods is usually based on a food classification method called Nova. This defines ultra-processed foods as those made by industrial processing and that often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives. The system has been criticised in the past.
More than one fifth of the survey respondents (21%) said that a healthy, balanced diet shouldn't include any ultra-processed foods. However, respondents lacked understanding about which foods qualified as being ultra-processed.
Lack of understanding
Of the people surveyed, only a small number could classify canned baked beans (9%), low fat fruit yogurt (9%), pre-packaged sliced bread (19%) and ready-made pasta sauces (26%) as ultra-processed.
BNF science director Sara Stanner said confusion surrounding the term could outshine the fact that some products described as ultra-processed could be part of a healthy diet.
“Many foods that would be classified as ultra-processed may not be recognised as such and, while many ultra-processed foods are not healthy options, this isn't always the case,” she explained.
“As well as less healthy items like crisps, cakes, sweets, chocolate and sugary drinks, which many of us need to cut back on, ultra-processed foods can include sliced wholemeal bread and vegetable-based pasta sauces which can be a useful part of a healthy, balanced diet.”
Cooking from scratch
The BNF also found that 69% of those surveyed agreed it was better to cook from scratch than use processed foods, but 53% said a healthy, balanced diet can include them.
Stanner added: “There can be a very judgmental attitude towards processed foods, implying that you cannot be eating well if your diet is not made up entirely from 'real food' that is cooked from scratch.
“But, most foods we eat are processed in some way and processed foods help a lot of us to prepare meals within the limited time and budget we have. What we should really be concerned about is how healthy a food is overall, and the balance of our diet as a whole.”
She called for a stop to the demonization of processed foods and more emphasis be placed on affective labelling to promote healthier choices.
“We need to encourage food manufacturers to produce foods that are healthier, ensuring that healthier food choices are easier, more convenient and affordable for people to make,” she concluded.