‘Healthy’ additives make ultra-processed foods more appealing

4 Jan 2024

Almost three-quarters (74%) of Americans would try an ultra-processed food if it provided a health benefit such as better sleep, better immunity, or increased energy, according to an industry survey.

Taste, ingredient quality and convenience are the most important factors to participants when it comes to choosing and paying more for processed foods, according to a survey of 2,000 American adults conducted by plant cell technology company Ayana Bio.

‘Healthy’ additives make ultra-processed foods more appealing
© iStock/carotur

UPFs typically have been processed multiple times and “contain additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colourants, flavours and processing aids", Ayana Bio said in a press release.

“For consumers, health in the context of food is more about increased benefits than reduced harm. The survey found that most people (64%) think of ‘healthier’ foods as foods that are more nutritious, rather than foods that have less harmful ingredients like fat, sugar, and salt,” the company said.

Redesigning UPFs to keep up with fresh food

There is an undeniably negative perception surrounding processed foods due to their added preservatives and other ingredients. They are regarded as quite unhealthy, and include packaged snacks like chips, candy, crackers and cookies, frozen meals, soda, and fast food.

However, just 57% of survey participants agreed that all UPFs are bad for one’s health while 82% of adults reported that UPFs are a part of their diets, mostly because of their taste, convenience, longer shelf life and lower prices.

Adults under age 35 were more interested in trying and paying more for healthier ultra-processed foods compared to older adults. And 74% said they would be willing to try an ultra-processed food if it included a health benefit such as better sleep, better immunity or increased energy. Ingredient quality is an important factor to consumers, particularly with processed foods.

"The media has painted a discouraging picture of ultra-processed foods, but the reality is the cost of fresh food can be prohibitive for many. We need processed food to take the pressure off fresh food supplies and innovative, cost effective and nutrient-dense ingredients that can be integrated into the foods people are reaching for to yield accessible, sustainable and nourishing food for the masses," said Frank Jaksch, CEO of Ayana Bio.

Credit: © iStock/FreshSplash© iStock/FreshSplash

Ayana Bio commercialises healthy bioactives with plant cell cultivation technology. It aims to produce affordable and nutritious ingredient additives that can be used to make healthier processed foods.

For now, UPFs still pose a health risk

Despite the push for healthier additive ingredients, doctors and health officials do generally recommend against UPFs in the average diet.

Harvard Medical School said to try to avoid or limit UPFs “whenever possible,” and cited research that suggests an association between ultra-processed diets and heart disease. The British Heart Foundation agrees, but acknowledges the challenges of avoiding processed food altogether.

“Instead of trying to completely cut out these foods, think about the balance in your diet. Make sure that there are minimally processed foods in there too,” the Foundation said on its website.

“It’s also important to remember that not all ultra-processed foods are equal. When you do include ultra-processed foods in your diet, choose those with more nutritional benefit – wholegrain bread and cereals or baked beans for example, instead of crisps, sweets or pizzas.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada said that Canadians consume almost 50% of their daily calories from UPFs, and warns consumers to be vigilant about food labels.

“Be wary of deceptive food marketing and advertising. Ultra-processed foods are often marketed as ‘healthy,’ ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ While these words may describe the original ingredients, they don’t refer to the process of how the food was made,” the foundation said.

“Eating fresh, unprocessed, whole food will do a lot of good for your body – including reducing your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.”

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