Ultra-Processed Foods: US Consumer Trends and Preferences

Explore the current US consumer attitudes towards ultra-processed foods

July 8, 2024 – Consumer trends research in the US shows that consumers are increasingly aware of their consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Consumer attitudes towards these products creates opportunities in the food and beverage market, including bundling taste and affordability with fresh and natural, reducing or eliminating ingredients that consumers may perceive are artificial and not natural, and gaining consumer trust so that consumers are not worried about the safety of foods that need to be ultra-processed.

NOVA Classification for Ultra-Processed Foods

The NOVA Classification is a system for determining if food and beverage products are ultra-processed. The NOVA Classification includes three levels based on the degree of processing. Unprocessed foods and natural foods include foods that come directly from plants or animals and do not need to be altered before eating. Examples of unprocessed foods and natural foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and meat, poultry, fish, and eggs that are not processed. The next level on the NOVA Classification for ultra-processed foods incorporates processed ingredients. Processed ingredients include nuts, oils, and butter. These ingredients can be extracted from natural foods or plants by pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, or refining the food or plant to remove the desired ingredient. Processed foods are manufactured with salt, sugar, oils, fats, or other ingredients to make them more palatable and to preserve them. Examples of processed foods are beef jerky, dried fish, and cheese. The third level is ultra-processed foods. UPFs are made from an assortment of ingredients. The ingredients include processed ingredients that have been extracted from foods, other ingredients that are derived from components of foods, or ingredients that are made in laboratories. Examples of ultra-processed foods include ready meals and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Health

The news media is filled with information about the possible link between ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases. Citizens in developed countries get a high proportion of their calories from UPFs. For example, over half the calories consumed by US citizens come from ultra-processed foods.  Several factors drive the consumption of UPFs, including affordability, taste, and easy nutrition.

US consumers recognize the link between ultra-processed foods and health. About half of consumers say UPFs are bad for their health or have low nutrition quality. A similar proportion of US consumers report trying to eat less processed food because UPFs are not healthy. They know that eating ultra-processed foods can be linked to higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol.

Ultra-Processed Foods

US Consumer Knowledge About Ultra-Processed Foods

US consumers may not realize that they eat a lot of ultra-processed foods. About half of US consumers participating in consumer trends research say that they eat UPFs up to six times each week. A problem with this answer is that consumers do not really understand what ultra-processed foods are. US consumers describe UPFs most often as fast food or junk food. They also say in consumer research that UPFs are foods with additives and artificial ingredients. When asked which categories of foods are ultra-processed, consumers in the US name ready meals and indulgences such as confectionery and cake.

US Consumers Watch Ingredients

In global consumer trends research, one in three consumers around the world report always looking at the package label for ingredients of interest. In the US, about half of participants in consumer trends research show interest in eating only products that have an ingredient list they can understand. US consumers say that they use the ingredient list to determine whether a food is ultra-processed. Ingredients they associate with UPF include artificial ingredients, preservatives, and stabilizers. A proportion of US consumers say that they are trying to limit the amount of artificial ingredients in their diet.

Ingredients Can Be Positive

After the ingredient list, US consumers look for nutrition when identifying UPFs. US consumers say that vitamins are the most important ingredient to them, followed by protein. This offers an opportunity for manufacturers to use storytelling, pictures, and graphics to help consumers pick healthy food choices.

US Consumers Try to Limit UPFs

US consumers are trying to cut down on the amount of ultra-processed foods in their diet, according to recent consumer trends research. Gen X and Boomer consumers are most likely to be reducing their intake of UPFs. Over half of US consumers say they have cut back on food and beverage categories that contain ultra-processed items.

Lack of Trust in Ultra-processed Foods

US consumers say that they do not trust ultra-processed foods. Similar proportions of Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Boomer consumers in the US say that UPFs are not safe to eat. Lack of trust is most prevalent among Boomers. Older generations, namely Boomers and Gen X, say that regulations regarding ultra-processed foods should be tighter and that a scoring system would be useful.

Manufacturer Opportunities Regarding UPFs

Food and beverage manufacturers have several opportunities when formulating food and beverage products. The first is to be innovative by balancing taste and affordability with use of fresh, natural and whole products and ingredients. US food and beverage manufacturers can reformulate products to reduce or eliminate artificial and artificial-sounding ingredients. It also is important to communicate to US consumers in a way that gains their trust regarding the safety of processed and ultra-processed foods.


This article is based on our report, “Ultra-Processed Foods in the Spotlight? What does the US Consumer Think?” If you are interested in reading this report, feel free to request a demo.
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