Demand for processed food is increasing, but at the same time, some of these products have been strongly criticised for causing non-communicable diseases. Only a few studies have analysed consumers’ perceptions of food processing and, especially, ultra-processed foods. We examined consumers’ associations with processed foods, as well as how their processing and healthiness perceptions are related to food classification systems (i.e. NOVA) and the nutritional value of foods (i.e. Nutri-Score). An online survey was conducted with 498 Swiss consumers, who indicated their associations with the term ‘foods produced by the industry’. Furthermore, the respondents indicated how they perceived the healthiness and degree of processing of 27 foods that differed in how much they had been processed. The results suggest that consumers have rather negative associations with food processing. Consumers use the perceived degree of processing as a cue in their evaluation of the healthiness of foods. The use of this heuristic may result in biased decisions. Furthermore, we found a strong agreement between laypeople’s perceived level of processing and the NOVA classification system.
Food processing plays an important role in a safe and secure food system (Carretero et al., 2020; Forde & Decker, 2022; Knorr & Augustin, 2021). The technologies behind food processing not only reduced the incidence of food-borne diseases (Floros et al., 2010) but also contributed to more sustainable food production by reducing food waste along the supply chain (Augustin et al., 2016). Furthermore, food processing has made it possible to supply a growing world population with affordable food products (Floros et al., 2010).
However, not all processed foods have high nutritional value. The way our food products are processed by the food industry has been blamed for an increase in obesity in many countries (Monteiro, 2009). Numerous studies have examined the consumption of processed foods in various European countries including Switzerland and around the world (Bertoni Maluf et al., 2022; Mertens, Colizzi, & Penalvo, ˜ 2022) . These studies have consistently found that processed foods contribute to at least 14% of total calorie intake, although the intake varies widely across Europe (Bertoni Maluf et al., 2022; De Amicis et al., 2022; Mertens, Colizzi, & Penalvo, ˜ 2022). Some studies have found that the consumption of processed foods, particularly those that are ultraprocessed, can have negative health effects, such as overweight and obesity (Monteiro et al., 2018), cardio-vascular diseases (Rauber et al., 2018), and cancer (Chang et al., 2023). However, other studies have not found a relationship between country-level burden of high body mass index and the consumption of highly processed foods (De Amicis et al., 2022; Mertens, Colizzi, & Penalvo, ˜ 2022).
Associations with ‘foods produced by the food industry’
The associations mentioned by the respondents were classified into 16 categories according to their meaning (Table 2). The associations mentioned the most commonly were ‘convenience food’ (18.7%), ‘unhealthy’ (16.5%), and ‘additives’ (10.4%). As expected, only a very small number of participants mentioned positive associations, which were mainly categorised into the ‘unspecific positive evaluations’ (3.0%) or ‘healthy’ (0.4%) categories. Furthermore, 11.8% of the participants responded to this task with ‘I don’t know’ or left the provided spot blank. The mean affect for the term evoked by ‘foods produced by the food industry’ was somewhat negative, with M = -1.06, SD = 2.32 (scale ranging from − 5 to + 5). The mean affect for the 16 categories are also shown in Table 2.