Healthy Eating doughnut health upfs hfss

Like sediment, the consensus is starting to settle on ultra-processed foods. According to recent polling, most people believe UPFs are bad for their health and should be avoided. In our own research, we found only 10% of consumers thought UPFs could be part of a healthy diet. Less than 1% would describe it as “convenient and nutritious”.

How quickly things have changed. Until last year, salt, fat and sugar were the problem on the plate. Now, everywhere you look – in the media, online, and in the bookshop window – we’re confronted with warnings about UPFs. This novel term has supplanted old acronyms and mental shortcuts (HFSS, junk food, etc.) and potentially altered the trajectory of future regulation.

The turning point came in April 2023, when Dr Chris van Tulleken published his heavily promoted book Ultra-Processed People. It was only a matter of time before UPFs became part of the political narrative as well. The book prompted a fourfold increase in parliamentary interest in UPFs last year. According to our analysis, 56% of parliamentary mentions of UPF are negative in sentiment. In the House of Commons specifically, it’s 81%.

The data shows that from the beginning this debate has been lopsided. There are virtually no references to the benefits of processing – safe, convenient, affordable food – and the problem is getting worse, quickly. Between 2022 and 2023, negative mentions in parliament increased threefold.

In the face of this criticism, the food and drink industry is missing in action. During our analysis, we recorded references to third-party briefing material – instances in which stats, reports and the like were quoted during debate – and used that to determine sources of influence and overall impact on sentiment. A third of all parliamentary mentions reference briefing material; industry research is quoted only once in four years of debate. There is no pushback from the sector.

The scramble to be heard is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s a correlation between briefing activity and overall levels of political interest. But more importantly for brands, briefing has a discernible impact on sentiment towards UPFs.

Based on our analysis, 65% of mentions that referenced third-party materials were negative in sentiment, versus 52% that weren’t. What is abundantly clear is that campaigners are skewing perceptions of UPFs in meaningful and measurable ways.

I understand the reluctance of brands to wade into this debate, but left unchecked, the consensus on UPFs could quickly translate into regulatory risk. Brands should leverage growing interest in parliament and engage political stakeholders immediately after the general election. There are five weeks to prepare.