Two thirds of Europeans believe ultra-processed foods contribute to obesity

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

The study showed a lack of knowledge around ultra-processed foods. Credit: Getty / Dougal Waters
The study showed a lack of knowledge around ultra-processed foods. Credit: Getty / Dougal Waters

Related tags Health

A new study has shed light on how consumers view ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and their potential health implications.

The research project, which was conducted by the EIT Food Consumer Observatory, surveyed more than 10,000 people across 17 European countries and found that more than two thirds (67%) of respondents believe UPFs contribute to obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related health issues.

A further 67% stated that they do not like it when their foods contain ingredients they do not recognise, and 40% said they don’t trust that UPFs are regulated well enough to ensure they are safe and healthy in the long term.

The study defined UPFs as including packaged snacks, soda, sugary cereals, energy drinks and chocolate bars, as well as ready-made sauces and dips, ready meals and salad dressings. A number of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives can also be classified as UPFs.

Moving away from health concerns, 60% of respondents consider UPFs to be bad for the environment, while 56% admitted to avoiding buying them while shopping.

Another trend uncovered by the study was that consumers are confused about what foods should be defined as UPFs. For example, while 61% identified energy drinks, just 34% and 22% respectively correctly identified vegan cheese and chocolate bars as being UPFs.

The report, titled ‘Consumer perceptions unwrapped: ultra-processed foods’, makes a series of recommendations to food sector authorities, manufacturers and retailers based on its findings. These include defining UPFs and making clearer statements about their health impacts, creating better lines of communication with the public about UPFs and determining whether plant-based substitutes should be considered UPFs.

‘UPFs knowledge gap exists among consumers’

Commenting on the results of the study, Klaus Grunert, Professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University and director of the EIT Food Consumer Observatory, said that the report had identified a clear “knowledge gap​” among consumers as it relates to identifying, understanding and engaging with UPFs.

Giving consumers clearer labelling, guidance and education could help them to better understand and engage with this issue, but it’s also important that concerns over processed food are considered in the wider context of people’s diets and wellbeing​,” added Grunert.

Meanwhile, Sofia Kuhn, director of public engagement at EIT Food, noted: “Whether it’s a pre-packaged pasta sauce for a quick meal at home, or a fast-food treat meal out with the family, ultra-processed foods are part of the day-to-day fabric of consumer diets across Europe. However, it’s evident from these findings that people have real concerns about the health and sustainability aspects of these foods.”

“As a sector, we need to create an environment which empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their diets, and foster a dialogue that not only educates but also inspires positive choices.”

In other news, food and non-alcoholic beverage prices fell during January 2024​, the first monthly decline in more than two years.

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