What retailers need to know about ultra processed food

21 February 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Speciality Food investigates UPFs, or ultra processed foods, to find out what the label means, whether UPFs are bad for consumers’ health, and what to sell instead
What retailers need to know about ultra processed food

Most Europeans are concerned about the impact of ultra processed foods (UPFs) on their health, according to a new study. UPFs make up a large part of consumer diets across Europe, contributing 56.8% of energy intake in the UK, rising to up to 74.9% for children.

However, there is still widespread confusion about what is classified as UPF and what the short and long-term health impacts are, according to EIT Food Consumer Observatory’s research.

Sofia Kuhn, director of public engagement at EIT Food, said “urgent action” is needed across the food value chain to empower customers with the clarity they need to make informed, healthy choices.

She told Speciality Food that retailers can be a force for good in the shift to healthier eating. “Food retailers have a role to play in providing customers with balanced information about the processing of different products, fostering trust in the products and supporting customers to make healthy and sustainable choices.”

What is ultra processed food?

Many ultra-processed foods seem obvious to the consumer, such as packaged snacks, soda and sugary cereals. But there are also less obvious food and drink that are classified as UPFs, including ready-made sauces and dips, pre-made meals, and many plant-based substitutes for animal products, like vegan cheese and plant-based meat substitutes

These are categorised as UPFs based on the NOVA system, EIT Food said, because they typically contain ingredients such as protein isolates, seed oils, emulsifiers, gums and additives.

Based on the NOVA classification scheme, which is the most widely used, UPFs are defined as “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology”, with the main goal being to maximise profit using low-cost ingredients to create a long shelf-life.

Are vegan foods ultra processed?

Despite vegan meat and cheese replacements falling into the NOVA classification, the definition of UPF is not entirely clear – even among experts. 

The NOVA system has been criticised for placing plant-based substitutes in the same food category as chocolate bars, even though many are relatively low in saturated fat, sugar or salt, and contain protein, fibre and are fortified.

“The NOVA system, devised before the plant-based surge, falls short today,” says Emma Bowe, co-founder and COO of Shocken Foods, which makes plant-based meat alternatives. Using the term ‘ultra processed’, she said, is “counterproductive” and “neglects nutritional nuances”. 

But if not the NOVA system, what can be used to help consumers identify the good from the bad? “Let’s shift focus to Nutri-Score, a clearer system, already in use in the EU and the UK, emphasising vital nutritional values graded from green to red and focusing around the calories, sugars, salt levels and saturated fats,” Emma suggested.

Plant-based substitutes are seen as examples of UPF, particularly by consumers who don’t follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, EIT’s research found. It indicates that these concerns are putting them off choosing a plant-based diet. 

Over half of European consumers (54%) said they avoid plant-based substitutes because they want to steer clear of UPFs. But often, this comes down to the consumer’s knowledge. For example, consumers who were less familiar with plant-based substitutes like tempeh and tofu were more likely to class them as UPFs, whereas those with more knowledge were less likely.

Are UPFs bad for you?

UPFs tend to have high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar, and studies have shown that the processing of some foods could change how our bodies absorb them, but experts say more research is needed to understand how UPFs influence our health.

There are certainly ultra processed foods to avoid, but it is not always black and white under the current system. As well as classifying vegan products as UPF, the NOVA method also labels food like packaged bread and breakfast cereals which offer more nutrition compared with other UPFs, like pre-made meals and cakes.

“Plant-based products will always be relatively processed by definition, otherwise it’s just unprocessed vegetables,” said Peter Kalkowsky, co-founder and CEO of Shocken Foods. “Vegan producers add protein isolates or seed oils to enhance the nutritional value and taste. These alternatives, compared to animal counterparts, boast more protein, fibre, less saturated fats, and sugar.”

One consumer surveyed by EIT agreed, saying, “It is possible to add beneficial additives in processing, for example vitamins and minerals.”

“For a consumer’s sake,” Peter continued, “bundling a plant-based alternative under the same term as a Snickers bar is simply confusing, and it’s missing the point of why the term ‘ultra processed’ was created in the first place. We should move into the direction of nutrition to identify what’s healthy,” he said.

What should fine food retailers do about UPFs?

Consumers’ reasons for choosing UPFs centre around their convenience, price and taste. And despite their concerns about their health impact, most don’t see themselves reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods they eat.

Experts say balance is key, and retailers can play a significant role in empowering individuals to make informed choices. 

Sofia said retailers can bring attention to packaged foods that are non-UPF. “For example, within the plant-based substitute aisle, basically processed foods such as tempeh, tofu, or falafel (if applicable) can be marked as non-UPF foods.” 

Retailers can also promote minimally or moderately processed equivalents over UPFs and choose to stock products with cleaner labels. For example, frozen products offer a chance to swap in fresh food items instead of processed, shelf-stable versions.

“Freezing is one of the oldest forms of food preservation, locking in freshness and nutrients,” said a spokesperson for Fieldfare. “Take a product such as Fieldfare’s popular All-Butter Croissants, which are produced, then frozen raw, ready for the shopper to prove and bake at home. Once taken out of the freezer and defrosted, the process activates the yeast, the croissant proves (and grows in size) and it is ready to cook.” These products have no need for artificial preservatives to keep them fresh as the freezer does the job.

Fine food retailers are also perfectly placed to explain to consumers the benefits of enjoying a minimally processed and maximally flavoured product, as well as the other benefits, such as creating connections with others through food.

While UPFs are seen as cheap, they are expensive relative to their value in nutrients. Many consumers would be willing to pay a bit more for food that is healthier and less damaging to the environment, so retailers should signpost this where possible.

But with confusion still reigning around what should really count as a UPF, action needs to be led by policymakers, Sofia said. “EIT Food Consumer Observatory’s new study has found that the confusion surrounding ultra-processed foods is widespread across Europe, and 40% of consumers don’t believe UPF are being regulated enough by governments and authorities. 

“Therefore, whilst retailers have a key role to play, the conversation needs to be led by authorities and policymakers. With further clarity, retailers can continue championing healthy food which consumers can trust.”

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