Five Top Takeaways About Today’s Processed Foods Landscape

The dialogue around processed food is noisier than ever, and the constant barrage of media headlines about the purported harms of all processed foods has no end in sight. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) educational webinar, “The Processed Paradox: Consumer Insights Into Today’s Most Controversial Foods,” explores today’s processed foods landscape utilizing IFIC consumer research and insights to highlight what consumers are thinking and doing about today’s most controversial subject in nutrition: processed foods. Here are IFIC’s five top takeaways:

1. Americans care about what they eat, yet how that translates into their eating pattern varies.

The vast majority (84%) of Americans say that eating healthy is important to them. Those who make $80,000+ annually and those with a college degree are more likely to say that eating healthy is “Very Important.” One of the ways this priority is expressed is through following an overall eating pattern. Slightly more than half of participants in the 2023 IFIC Food & Health Survey (52%) reported following a specific diet or eating pattern in the last year. High protein (18%) and mindful eating (17%) led the way as the two most popular diets. These were followed by calorie counting, clean eating, and intermittent fasting (each at 12%). An uptick in those who selected mindful eating in 2023 may signal a desire for a more holistic yet realistic approach to eating. Still, almost half (48%) report not following the structure of a specific diet or eating pattern.

2. The Nova food classification system serves as the current, yet incomplete, methodology cited in the scientific literature as well as media stories regarding processed foods, likely impacting consumers’ perceptions.

The Nova classification system is the most utilized food classification approach documented in the scientific literature and has recently crossed over into mainstream media, with possibly far-reaching consequences. IFIC research reveals that three-fourths (76%) of consumers consider whether a food is processed before they purchase it and the majority (60%) try to avoid processed foods. It is important to remember that Nova categorizes food based on the level of processing, not by the nutrition it provides. This is a significant departure from how registered dietitians and nutrition scientists have traditionally categorized or evaluated food. Still, more research is needed to determine the potential implications of processing on health outcomes. In fact, several research roadmaps have been developed to address research gaps, including one from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

3. Key messages from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans resonate with consumers, and guidance from global health authorities on ultra-processed is ramping up.

When asked which action they could take to eat healthier, consumers’ top response was “eat more fruits and vegetables” followed by “practice balance, variety and moderation.” These choices are reflective of the key messages put forth by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. On that note, the expert group tasked with evaluating the scientific evidence to inform the 2025-2030 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is for the first time, examining the potential role that ultra-processed foods have on health. Globally, governments and other health authorities are increasingly cautioning against the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

4. The food label is a key information source, yet overall processed foods literacy remains low.

When trying to determine whether a food is processed, consumers note their most common reference point is the ingredients list (49%), followed by the form of the food (46%). Likewise, while shopping in a supermarket and looking at packaged foods, the top labeling terms that consumers rely on to determine if a food is healthy are “no artificial ingredients” (34%) and “no additives” (26%) followed by “organic” (22%) as well as “no added sugar” and “natural” (both at 19%). Interestingly, those under age 45 years are less likely to select “No artificial ingredients” compared to their older counterparts. Still, consumer understanding of processed foods is lacking; seven in ten Americans reveal that they do not fully understand what a processed food is. Those making less than $40,000 annually and those without a college degree are more likely to say they don’t think they could explain what a processed food is.

5. Health professionals are the direct line to consumers, with improved diet quality as the ultimate goal.

Only half of those surveyed (53%) think processed foods can fit into a healthy diet, yet most also say they eat processed foods (96%). Ease, taste, convenience, and price are all top reasons why packaged foods are commonly consumed. Despite the stated desire to eat healthy and many sector efforts aimed at assisting consumers, overall American diet quality remains grim. The Healthy Eating Index, a scoring metric used to determine overall diet quality and alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, indicates that Americans’ diets are well below optimal with a current score of 58 out of 100. While the scientific evidence and corresponding conversations around processed foods continue to evolve, health experts and scientists agree that improving diet quality is the ultimate goal. Now and in the future, food, nutrition and health professionals and communicators must serve not only to help consumers make sense of today’s harrowing headlines, but also to focus on what actions will make a positive impact on both diet quality and health.

Watch the replay of this webinar here.