Consumer Perceptions About Processed Foods

March 29, 2010

The study, which interviewed 1,500 adults in the U.S. who are the primary grocery shopper in their household, found that negative perceptions are deeply rooted and cross all demographics.

Consumers (43%) have a negative attitude toward processed foods, according to a recent study conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and Artemis Strategy Group. The study, which interviewed 1,500 adults in the U.S. who are the primary grocery shopper in their household, found that negative perceptions are deeply rooted and cross all demographics.

Researchers discovered that both the obesity epidemic and the move toward local and organic alternatives are driving forces in this attitude shift, and growing concerns about the healthfulness of processed foods are leading to the de-selection of some of these foods in certain food and beverage categories. The term “processed foods” itself also carries with it a negative perception.

“We know that weight is tied to both diet and exercise, but processed foods have been the primary target, mostly due to negative information that isn’t always science-based being perpetuated in the media,” says Lindsey Loving, Senior Director, Food Ingredient & Technology Communications for IFIC. “Another issue is the use of certain ingredients in processed foods. There is a lot of misinformation out there about the purpose, function, and safety of many ingredients in processed foods, which creates uncertainty and fear.”

While consumers’ general attitudes toward processed foods are negative, there is recognition of the significant role processed foods play in their everyday diets. In addition, some types of processed foods have more negative views associated with them than others. For example, sodium, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup are poorly perceived. 

When selecting foods and beverages, consumers rate taste, freshness, safety and value at the top of their wish list. Additionally, they are interested in foods that stay fresh longer and are enjoyable to eat. Interestingly, these are all qualities of most processed foods.

Nearly all consumers eat both fresh and processed foods, and two-thirds of those interviewed consume some organic foods. However, one-third of consumers plan to reduce their consumption of processed foods in the next six months or say they have recently done so (actual purchasing behavior was not observed in this study). 

Some of the most mentioned processed foods consumers say they eat include cheese, canned soup, frozen meals, soda, lunch meats, chips and cereal.

Foods identified as “fast” foods or “junk” foods top the de-selection list, but virtually all categories of processed foods receive a mention. The majority of consumers (80%) are in the process of changing how they eat, and of those, 48% are doing so for improved health and nutrition. Thirteen percent cited the economy. 

Consumers in this study acknowledged the positive aspects of processed foods, like convenience, value and consistency, and they do seem to understand that it is unrealistic to buy solely fresh, local and organic foods – especially during these tough economic times.

“Local foods provide another option for people looking to add fresh produce to their diets; however, this option may not be as convenient or cost effective for some consumers,” says Loving. 

Also, Loving points out that de-selection of processed foods could have its own negative consequences, potentially leading to a greater risk of foodborne illness from eating spoiled food and the consumption of fewer nutrients. Some processed foods contain preservatives and/or use special packaging to maintain freshness, and some processed foods are fortified to provide essential nutrients that are not as abundant in fresh foods. 

“It would be difficult to eliminate all processed foods, since almost everything we eat is processed in some shape or form. Choices would be extremely limited,” says Loving.

Processed foods are a critical component of our everyday diets. Retailers have an opportunity here to remind consumers about the potential benefits of processed foods, which include cost/value, convenience, consistency, staying fresher longer, and food safety. 

“It’s important to educate employees about the benefits of food processing and technology,” says Loving. “Providing information at the point of sale would also be helpful in aiding consumers in making an educated decision.”