Misunderstandings prevail around food processing, namely what it means and how it relates to a food’s nutritional content. “One of the main misconceptions around food processing is that the degree of processing of a food is directly linked to the healthfulness of a food,” says Dr Nina McGrath, production area lead at the European Food Information Council (EUFIC).
Often, the term processed food may have associations with products such as ready-made supermarket meals containing many ingredients and food additives, frozen pizzas or packaged chocolate chip cookies, EUFIC says. “However, food processing is often a necessary step to producing healthy, tasty, safe and sustainably-handled food for consumers.”
Food processing refers to any action or procedure that changes the initial food or raw materials used to produce the item, such as crops and water. Food is therefore processed for many beneficial reasons, including enhancing nutritional content, making food digestible, and prolonging shelf-life.
With that said, food processing can also bring undesired consequences like nutrition losses; the addition of high amounts of fat, salt, or sugar; and the formation of toxic compounds.
Identifying processed from ultra-processed food
Recommendations on limiting or avoiding processed food are heavily reliant on the specific food and how it may affect consumer health, EUFIC says. In today's food industry, a broad selection of foods can be classified as ultra-processed.
“In some cases, processing may make a food less healthy, for example, by adding high amounts of salt or sugar,” says McGrath. These are foods that consumers are generally recommended to limit as part of a healthy diet, such as soft drinks, chocolate and fried snacks.
“However, some other examples, like wholemeal bread and vegetable-based sauces, may also be considered ultra-processed foods, which can be part of a healthy dietary pattern.”
Overcoming confusing messages
Action is needed to overcome any confusion relating to these terms for European consumers. EUFIC’s research has found that even among food, nutrition and health experts, there is not always agreement on the terms and concepts surrounding processed foods.
“There is a lack of consensus about the scope of processing, the degree of processing and the aspects used to evaluate the healthiness of processed foods,” says McGrath.
This lack of consensus may lead to conflicting information reaching consumers, making navigating the surrounding food environment more challenging.
“Further collaboration between stakeholders is needed to agree how food processing can be part of the solution to provide enough food for the population’s nutritional needs and reduce the environmental impact on the planet.”
Ending the debate
EUFIC wants to bring consumer attention to the current public debate on processed and ultra-processed foods.
Following the release of Dr Chris van Tulleken’s book, Ultra-Processed People, published on 27th April 2023, to support the coverage of the complex topic, EUFIC released its latest article What is processed food?.
With its basis in science, the article explores definitions and distinctions between food processing and processed foods, its positive and negative effects, how food processing can affect food intake, and support on choosing processed foods within a healthy and sustainable diet.
Pinpoint public communications
The findings follow 2022 research from the University of Surrey detailing how a lack of professional consensus hinders public health communications about processed foods.
Published in Frontiers in Nutrition, the research emphasised the ambiguity and confusion surrounding terms such as “processing”, “ultra-processed”, and “healthy” foods. It highlights that food scientific experts and stakeholders need to quickly reach a consensus on what processed foods are to benefit consumers and improve health outcomes.
“We need to quickly identify the root issues, while viewing food processing as part of a complex food system, to understand how processing can be optimised towards the goal of equitable, safe, sustainable, and healthy diets,” says Christina Sadler, a postgraduate researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Surrey and senior manager at the EUFIC.