The Case For Consumer-Centric Communications On Ultra-Processed Foods

Imagine a world where consumer communication outpaces the speed of scientific rigor. Where concepts that sound science-based, and make sense on the surface, shape real-life food beliefs, decisions, and eating behaviors. Where food and nutrition opinions, sentiments, and habits are formed and reinforced for generations.

Now imagine that the scientific evidence catches up, and in fact, we have gotten ahead of ourselves, leading to unintended consequences related to consumers’ food and nutrition beliefs and behaviors, and subsequently, health outcomes. In reality, we may be at this inflection point with processed foods.

What Is Processing and Ultra-Processed Food?

Processing is the step that keeps much of our food safe. Food processing also decreases waste and plays a role in U.S. food and nutrition security.

Various systems have been created to measure the level of processing in foods and identify those that are ultra-processed (UPF). Notably, there is a lack of consensus around one standardized system, making it difficult to scientifically test any potential impact of food processing on health beyond effects that are nutrition-related and well-known. In fact, several research roadmaps have been developed to address research gaps, including one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Still, in the media and public discourse, UPFs are often represented as “junk food” and linked to various environmental and health maladies. They have also become public enemy #1 in dietary guidance around the globe.

Despite Long-Standing Advice, Diet Quality Remains Elusive

The U.S. is experiencing a prolonged food and nutrition security crisis – Americans are malnourished. Food insecurity rates increased from 2021 to 2022, and millions of Americans live in areas that are low-income and have low access to nearby supermarkets. The average Healthy Eating Index (HEI) diet quality score is 59 out of 100 – a failing grade. In short, we are a nation that consumes too few fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy and is woefully deficient in calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and potassium.

Long-standing nutrition advice often focuses on what to avoid: foods, ingredients, nutrients, and now, processing. This type of advice is enduring, and in many respects, may be inadequate given the state of diet quality in America. Further demonizing food processing, independent of nutrition, will likely work against nutrition security and health equity in our country and will not help more of our population adopt (and enjoy!) eating patterns that are consistent with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What’s For Dinner?

At the end of every single day, in a cluttered and confusing global messaging environment, consumers are left on their own to wonder “What and how am I going to prepare and serve a healthy, balanced dinner that fits within my budget and that my family will eat and enjoy?”

Research and consumer insights from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) tell this story:

  • Each year, since 2010, the IFIC Food & Health Survey has hit home that taste is the number one driver of food decisions. Price is typically second, and health and convenience usually register in third and fourth place, respectively.
  • Data from the recently released IFIC research, Public Perceptions Of Processed Foods In A Healthy Diet, reveals only half of those surveyed (53%) think processed foods can fit into a healthy diet, yet most also say they eat processed foods (96%).
  • More than six in 10 Americans say they try to avoid processed foods at least sometimes.
  • However, more than seven in 10 consumers acknowledge that they do not fully understand or cannot fully explain what processed food is.
  • Consumers purchase packaged foods for many reasons including ease of preparation (33%), taste (32%), longer storage (29%), and because they are nutritious or healthy (22%).

Let’s Roll Up Our Sleeves

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. We must put emerging science regarding processed foods into context and translate scientific consensus in a way that motivates people to create and sustain healthier habits, and ultimately, diets.

Consumer behavior is public health. We must also explore and elevate a consumer-centric behavior-based strategy that improves diet quality in the U.S. IFIC envisions the basis of this work to be behavioral research on what consumers consider, feel, and do when making choices throughout their food journey—from inspiration to purchase to consumption. These research insights will be help us understand and share actionable advice that helps real people make informed decisions about safe, affordable, convenient, nutritious, and delicious food that fits their cultural needs and preferences to ultimately bolster diet quality and public health.

We could keep doing the same thing and expect another result. Or we can start now, with a new and novel approach, that supports consumers in determining what actions they can (and will) take to better the health and happiness of themselves and their families.