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The majority of consumers think ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are bad for their health, a new pan-European study has revealed.

The research from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory, combining a survey of 10,000 consumers from 17 European countries alongside a follow-up qualitative study, found that 65% of European consumers believe that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy, and that they will cause health issues later in life.

More than two-thirds of consumers (67%), for example, believe UPFs contribute to obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related health issues.

Furthermore, 67% of European consumers state that they do not like it when their foods contain ingredients they do not recognise, and four in 10 (40%) do not trust that ultra-processed foods are regulated well enough by authorities to ensure these foods are safe and healthy in the long term.

UPFs include packaged snacks, soda, sugary cereals, energy drinks and chocolate bars, as well as foods such as ready-made sauces and dips, ready meals and salad dressings.

Despite consumers’ health concerns, 56% admit to eating UPFs at least once a week, citing convenience, price and taste as motivations. 

However, the data shows many consumers are confused about the extent to which their food is processed. For example, 61% of consumers correctly identified energy drinks as ultra-processed, while just 34% thought vegan cheese was an ultra-processed food, and 22% identified chocolate bars as one. 

The report, titled ‘Consumer perceptions unwrapped: ultra-processed foods’, makes a series of recommendations to food sector authorities, manufacturers and retailers, to better support consumers to make informed, healthier decisions about the foods they are choosing.

These include recommendations that health institutions and scientists need to define ultra-processed foods and make more conclusive and substantiated statements about their short- and long-term healthiness, and that they need to consider how to communicate with and educate consumers about what food processing means, what it can look like, and what effects it can have on health.

The report also suggests that national food recommendations need to clarify whether plant-based substitutes are ultra-processed foods and whether this matters for their overall healthiness.

“The latest findings from the EIT Food Consumer Observatory demonstrate a clear knowledge gap in how consumers identify, understand and engage with how their food is produced,” said EIT Food Consumer Observatory director Klaus Grunert.

“Giving consumers clearer labelling, guidance and education could help them to better understand and engage with this issue, but it’s also important that concerns over processed food are considered in the wider context of people’s diets and wellbeing.” 

EIT Food director of public engagement Sofia Kuhn added: “Whether it’s a pre-packaged pasta sauce for a quick meal at home, or a fast food treat meal out with the family, ultra-processed foods are part of the day-to-day fabric of consumer diets across Europe.

“However, it’s evident from these findings that people have real concerns about the health and sustainability aspects of these foods.

“As a sector, we need to create an environment which empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their diets, and foster a dialogue that not only educates but also inspires positive choices. That way, we can drive forward a healthier and more sustainable food system for all,” Kuhn added.