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Processed foods considered less healthy than homemade fare

Consumers strongly link the level of food processing with perceptions of healthiness, new research has found.

A study published in the Food Quality and Preference journal concluded that the less processed a food is perceived to be by laypeople the healthier they think it is.

The research also found strong agreement between people’s perceived level of processing and the NOVA classification system, the main system used to classify ultra-processed food (UPF) globally.

An online survey was conducted with 498 Swiss consumers who were asked to indicate their associations with the term ‘foods produced by the industry’. The respondents were also asked how they perceived the healthiness and degree of processing of 27 foods that differed in how much they had been processed.

Homemade products were perceived to be the least processed and most healthy food products, whereas ready-to-use and industrially pre-cooked food products, such as ready-to-use pizza dough, baby food composed of fruit in a pouch, or tomato sauce Bolognese, were perceived to be highly processed and unhealthy.

Researchers said the results suggested that participants based their healthiness evaluations on the perceived degree of processing. They said the results were in line with the idea that consumers rely on simple heuristics to evaluate the healthiness of foods.

Food products belonging to NOVA group 1 (which includes foods like unprocessed fruit and vegetables) were perceived as the least processed and the healthiest, while those in group 4 (which includes packaged snacks and mass produced breads, biscuits and cakes) were perceived as the most processed and the unhealthiest. Researchers said this suggests the NOVA classification system is a reflection of laypeople’s perceptions.

There is fierce disagreement over the role of UPF in our diets amid evidence linking its consumption with negative health and environmental outcomes. In April, the row reached boiling point after the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) published a controversial position statement arguing against blanket dietary advice to avoid ultra-processed food, some of which it argued can contribute to an affordable, healthy, balanced diet.

More recently, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) concluded that most systematic evidence reviews have found that increased consumption of processed food, and specifically UPF, was associated with a greater risk of these adverse health outcomes. However, the committee stopped short of calling for government intervention to reduce people’s exposure to UPF citing uncertainties around the quality of evidence available.