Meeting the challenge in Ultra-Processed Foods

In this blog we’ll continue to look at the theme of dealing with unpredictability by looking at an emerging challenge for food brands: the concept of ultra processed foods (UPFs).

Stefan Schafer from our Consumer team will share three key points from Incite Director Jo Zukunft’s recent presentation to a meeting of the Nutritionists in Industry group at King’s College London, on consumer attitudes to UPFs.

We’ll cover what consumers know and how they feel about the topic. And we’ll consider the approach brands need to adopt as the topic evolves, and what that means for dealing with similar challenges in the future.

The Ultra Processed Foods challenge 

Defined by the NOVA classification as foods made with high levels of industrial processing, often containing additives such as colours, emulsifiers and preservatives, UPFs have been implicated in everything from depression and mental ill-health to obesity and even cancer.

And the term covers a huge proportion of the foods consumed by UK households. The British Heart Foundation lists everything from ice cream and biscuits to fruit flavoured yoghurts, ham and mass-produced bread.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, Ultra-Processed Foods have emerged as a concern for consumers, legislators, organisations like the Soil Association, and influential experts in the media in recent years.

In her recent presentation to the NII, my colleague Jo Zukunft shared three insights into how understanding of UPFs is developing amongst consumers, based on a combination of expert interviews, desk research, social listening and qualitative consumer research in the UK.

Here’s what we heard:

1 / Sizeable risk of misinterpretation 

If behavioural science has taught us anything (and we happen to think it’s taught us quite a bit), it is that consumers will often leap to plausible wrong answers.

So, a term like ‘ultra processed foods’, emerging in an already noisy public debate around food and what constitutes a healthy diet, is ripe for misunderstandings and negative assumptions.

Few of the consumers we spoke to had heard the term before but, put simply, they didn’t like the sound of it. For them, ‘processed’ meant adulterated, unhealthy, poor quality and bad-for-me. And ‘ultra’ pushed views to the extreme.

2 / Quick conclusions and fear of the unfamiliar 

Once the term was explained to them, consumers quickly formed a series of assumptions and associations about UPFs.

They saw UPFs as most likely to be ‘treat’ foods like confectionery and crisps, as well as more indulgent options in other categories like pizzas.

And they looked to how visibly ‘transformed’ foods were; unfamiliar (or long) ingredient lists; and more artificial looking packaging in vibrant ‘unnatural’ colours as clues as to what was, and was not, ultra-processed.

Importantly, these cues were seen both in the usual suspects of consumer suspicion like chicken nuggets; but also in items like plant-based meals, maybe going some way to explaining the difficulties brands in this space have run into recently.

3 / Perceptions can evolve 

Finally, we saw that with time and reflection, UPF can begin to take on a different meaning for consumers.

A key trigger for this was often the realisation that lots of foods they already eat – and trust – are technically UPFs (e.g. breakfast cereals, yoghurt and bread). And this led to consumers identifying and appreciating the benefits of at least some ultra-processed products.

Beyond pragmatic benefits like convenience and longer shelf-lives, consumers also appreciated that these products could help with things like smuggling more veg into their kids’ diets and in helping them ‘scratch cook’ at least part of their meals.

So what does this mean for brands? 

Most obviously, brands with products falling under the definition of UPF need to monitor what remains a fluid consumer situation.

But importantly, these insights demonstrate that without positive engagement there is substantial risk that consumers will leap to strongly negative assumptions about what UPF means (and implies) and how to identify UPF products.

The plan for each brand will need to be different, but it seems likely that attacking the challenge from both sides – addressing substantive concerns, and mitigating the role of secondary markers in ‘signalling’ UPF status will be relevant for most.

And more generally, UPFs serves as a useful case study for how consumers respond to new topics in health and nutrition. Just as we have seen in our client work on topics like sugar and, artificials of all kinds, this topic can elicit strong emotions and a cloud of negative assumptions that fill the gaps left by unclear messaging from brands and noisy public debate. The sooner brands have plans in the place to address and mitigate these risks, the more control they will have.

To talk to us about how to plan a healthier future for your brand, get in touch today.