The Processed Foods Paradox: Latest Consumer Research Reveals Confusion Surrounding Definitions And Healthfulness

New IFIC Research Looks At How Consumers View Processed Foods

Washington, DC, Jan. 30, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently published new consumer research, Public Perceptions of Processed Foods, measuring consumers’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about processed foods.  

“From public health to pop culture, we have seen a significant increase in interest surrounding processed foods in recent years,” Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN, IFIC President & CEO, said. “Much of the controversy results from classification systems utilized in scientific literature to categorize foods based on level of processing versus nutrition or other food attributes. Amidst the emerging evidence and headlines, current scientific consensus and consumer perspectives are often excluded. As an educational nonprofit sitting at the intersection of science, food, and the consumer, we believe exploring consumer insights on processed foods is timely, needed, and important.”  

One In Five Consumers Report Eating Fewer Processed Foods As An Important Action To Eat Healthier 
Healthfulness remains top of mind for consumers. The vast majority of Americans (84%) claim prioritizing a healthy diet is important to them. When asked which actions they could take to eat healthier, Americans ranked eating more fruits and vegetables (33%) as well as practicing balance, variety, and moderation (27%) at the top. Reduction approaches (eating less sugar, eating smaller portions) were not far behind. Of note, nearly 1 in 5 (18%) consumers also listed eating fewer processed foods as an action they could take to eat healthier.  

The survey also asked Americans what words or phrases help them determine a food’s healthfulness. Top responses included “no artificial ingredients” (34%) and “no additives” (26%) followed by “organic” (22%), as well as “no added sugar” and “natural” (both at 19%).  

Consumers Are Conflicted And Confused About Processed Foods 
“According to IFIC research, many Americans believe there is a place for processed foods in a healthy diet, but it’s complicated,” explained Alyssa Pike, RD, IFIC Senior Manager, Nutrition Communications. “The majority agree that a wide range of foods, several of which are processed, can fit into a healthy eating pattern.”

For example, foods technically considered on the spectrum of processed foods utilizing classification systems from scientific literature, like frozen broccoli (64%), frozen berries (62%), vanilla Greek yogurt (60%), and canned tuna (55%) ranked high when asked if they can fit into a healthy diet. While items such as jarred salsa (15%) and chocolate milk (14%) ranked lower. 
While just more than half of Americans (53%) believe processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet, another 1 in 5 are not sure. A majority (69%) report eating processed foods at least some of the time; very few (4%) say they never eat them. Why are so many Americans reaching for packaged foods at the grocery store? Consumers report ease of preparation (33%), taste (32%), and longer storage (29%) as top reasons they select and purchase packaged foods.   

But despite the prevalence and reported consumption, misunderstanding remains. More than 7 in 10 Americans say they do not fully understand or could explain what a processed food is.

“It’s clear consumers are eating processed foods, yet it’s also clear they’re confused about what is considered a processed food,” Pike stated. “Consumers want to eat healthfully, yet they lack a firm understanding of processed foods and how they may fit or enhance their diet.”  

Experts Agree That Overall Diet Quality And How To Achieve It Remains Elusive To Consumers 
“Helping consumers close their current knowledge-action gap by focusing on how to create—and sustain—healthier habits is the key to ultimately building healthier diets. Despite multiple efforts focused on what to, or what not to eat, research confirms we are still a nation that consumes too few fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy,” Reinhardt Kapsak said. “Behavior-based approaches that empower consumers while also providing much-needed context regarding the emerging science of processed foods, are needed.” 

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) commissioned an online research survey with consumers based in the US to measure knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about processed foods. One thousand adults aged 18+ years completed the survey from July 5-6, 2023, and responses were weighted to ensure proportional results. The Bayesian confidence level for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level.    

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization with a mission to effectively communicate science-based information about food safety, nutrition, and sustainable food systems, serving the public good. To fulfill this mission and demonstrate its thought leadership in action, IFIC: 1) delivers best-in-class research and consumer insights to inform food, nutrition, and health stakeholders; 2) promotes science communications to positively impact consumer behavior and public health; and convenes critical thought leaders to advance the food systems dialogue and science-based decision-making. For more information, visit and our resource hub; Follow us on InstagramFacebook, and X (formerly known as Twitter) and sign up for our newsletter here


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