- Nearly half of Americans report having a high understanding of processed foods.
- Looking at the ingredients list on a product is the most common way consumers determine whether a food or beverage is processed or not.
- Only one-quarter of Americans have heard of the term “ultraprocessed foods.”
- Americans say they would be more likely to buy a processed food if it was less expensive, fortified with vitamins and minerals, lower in sugar and/or lower in sodium.
Whether cooking at home, snacking on the go, or picking up groceries, many of us turn to processed foods as part of our daily “process.” But taking a deeper dive, what level of understanding do Americans really have when it comes to processed foods—and what are their perspectives on them? And exactly how familiar are Americans with the term “ultraprocessed”? IFIC’s most recent survey aimed to find out answers to these questions. For the third year in a row, our 2022 Perceptions on Processed: Consumer Sentiment and Purchasing Habits survey explores Americans’ beliefs, perceptions, and purchasing behaviors around processed foods and beverages.
When asked about their level of understanding of processed foods, nearly half of respondents reported having a “high” understanding. Specifically, 46% of respondents selected the answer “I can easily explain what processed foods are and identify examples of processed foods.” Those who were more likely to report having a high understanding included men, those earning more than $80,000 a year, white people, those under age 45, and those with college degrees. In contrast, three in ten respondents (29%) reported a “moderately high” understanding by selecting the answer “I can only somewhat explain what processed foods are, but I can easily identify examples of processed foods.” Just 12% of respondents reported a low understanding by choosing the option “I cannot really explain what processed foods are, but I can identify some examples of processed foods.” Finally, an even smaller portion of the population reported having a very low understanding of processed foods, with 5% selecting the answer “I can neither explain what processed foods are nor identify examples of processed foods.”
While Americans view certain aspects of processed foods as either positive or negative, other attributes draw more neutral sentiments. When respondents were asked to choose the positive aspects of processed foods from a list of attributes, the most popular options were “convenience” (with 45% saying so), “affordability” (39%) and “shelf-life” (38%). When provided with the same options but asked to choose which aspects respondents perceived as negative, the most commonly selected options were “impact on health” (44%), “quality of ingredients” (33%), and “nutrition” (31%).
Most Americans keep processed foods in their household. Eight in ten respondents (81%) agreed with the statement “I keep shelf-stable, canned or packaged foods in my household.” Additionally, many agreed with statements regarding the nutritional, environmentally sustainable, and economic benefits of processed foods. Specifically, 68% agreed that “adding more vitamins and minerals to foods and beverages can improve the nutritional value of today’s food supply,” and 66% agreed with the statement “the shelf stability of some processed foods helps me cut down on food waste.” When it came to cost-effectiveness, 68% agreed that “processed foods are helpful for preparing affordable meals.” However, only 55% of Americans agreed with the statement “a healthy eating pattern can include processed foods.”
Two in three respondents (66%) had not heard of the term “ultraprocessed foods.” Only 25% said that they had heard of this phrase, while 10% said they were not sure. When asked about their understanding of “processed” versus “ultraprocessed” foods, over half of Americans (53%) agreed that there is a difference between “processed” and “ultraprocessed” foods, while one in five (21%) said they were not sure. The demographic groups who were more likely to strongly agree with this statement were the same as those who were more likely to report a high understanding of processed foods and familiarity with “ultraprocessed” foods—in particular, men, those earning $80,000 or more a year, white people, those under age 45, and those with college degrees.
Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,000 adults conducted from September 7th to September 13th, 2022, by Lincoln Park Strategies. They were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95% confidence level.