Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) - foods and beverages that, as the name suggests, have undergone extensive processing – are on the rise globally. Across Europe, UPFs account for over a quarter (27%) of the average daily calorie intake, rising to more than half in the UK, US and Canada.
Regulators are increasingly introducing measures and labelling requirements for UPFs to reduce consumption and curb associated negative health effects. Chile was the first country in the world to mandate ‘high-in’ front-of-pack nutrition label requirements on energy-dense foods in 2014 and many others have since followed suit, such as Chile and Guatemala. These regulations seek to improve transparency and empower consumers to make more informed dietary choices but may also threaten large sectors of the packaged food industry, including ‘better-for-you’ brands.
“In the same way that cellular agriculture and precision fermentation have the possibility, however remote, to revolutionise how we produce and consume food, so too could classifying foods by their degree of processing transform the future of packaged food,” Nicholas Fereday, executive director of food and consumer trends at RaboResearch said in a research paper published last year.
Ultra-processed foods are associated with negative health impacts
The NOVA framework, which classifies foods into four categories according to their level of processing, defines UPFs as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes”. Examples of industrial ingredients include emulsifiers, modified starches and high-intensity sweeteners, while food in this category include biscuits, ready meals, sauces, packaged sliced bread, soft drinks, and cakes.
Further research is needed before accurate conclusions can be drawn on the relationship between a diet high in UPFs and health, yet early studies show that these foods are often loaded with added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, and lack the essential nutrients and minerals needed to sustain nutrition. Regular consumption has been linked to an increase in the adult obesity rate, which currently stand at around 15% globally, data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows. Each 10% increase in the consumption of UPFs is associated with a 12% greater risk of cancer, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
Consumer awareness of what UPFs are and how they may impact health is low but rising.
“The public is little aware of the relationship between the consumption of UPF and ill health, despite ample evidence for this. There are TV documentaries and other sources of info which have addressed the issue recently, so hopefully there will be more awareness in the future,” said Dr Mélissa Mialon, research assistant professor specialising in nutrition at Trinity College Dublin.
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Classification could impact the consumer appeal of ‘healthy’ products
While many consumers are forming an increasingly negative attitude towards UPFs, not all products in this category contain problematic ingredients and high calories. According to the NOVA classification, many products in on-trend health and wellness categories are considered as ultra-processed, despite containing reduced sugar, salt, high protein, and carrying a health image. The same is true for plant-based meats and alternative dairy products.
Classifying foods on the extent of processing undergone rather than nutritional value could cause consumers to view all UPFs negatively, regardless of their impact on health and nutrition or marketing positioning. This would likely lead to a decline in sales for manufacturers of these products.
“In many ways, the consumer is already primed to view UPFs in a negative light, as it is consistent with many ongoing narratives and food trends, including the demand for fewer ingredients, ‘clean labels,’ and ‘clean-eating’ diets (the most popular dietary eating pattern in the US, according to the International Food Information Council),” Fereday wrote.
Boosting market growth and consumer health
While the classification of UPFs and increased consumer awareness of food processing presents challenges for manufacturers, it may also offer significant opportunities.
As consumer awareness about food processing grows, minimally processed “could indeed” become the new clean label, Mialon said. Manufacturers can reformulate existing products to capitalise on the growing consumer demand for healthier and less processed food. This will enable brands to capture new market segments and ultimately improve public health.
By aligning their product offerings with evolving consumer preferences, manufacturers can position themselves as leaders in the market for healthier and more nutritious foods. Exploiting these opportunities not only benefits the health and well-being of consumers but also ensures the long-term success and sustainability of food manufacturers in a changing landscape.