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Lack of Professional Consensus Hinders Public Health Communications about Processed Foods

Food, nutrition and health experts don’t always agree on terms and concepts surrounding processed foods, according to new research from the University of Surrey.

The research, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, suggests that food scientific experts and stakeholders need to quickly reach a consensus when it comes to processed foods to benefit consumers and improve health outcomes.

The research highlighted the ambiguity and confusion surrounding terms such as ‘processing’, ‘ultra-processed’, and even ‘healthy’ foods.

Christina Sadler, a postgraduate researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Surrey and Senior Manager at the European Food Information Council, said: “There is agreement that food processing can be part of the solution to provide enough food for the population’s nutritional needs and reduce the environmental impact on the planet, but confusion still exists among experts on what role it should play in the food system. A lack of consensus about the classification of food processing and processed food may lead to conflicting information and hinder progress towards these goals. That is why we are recommending further collaboration between all those with a professional interest in food, particularly if they want to be seen as trustworthy sources when offering advice to the wider public.”

“We need to quickly identify the root issues, while viewing food processing as part of a complex food system, to understand how processing can be optimised towards the goal of equitable, safe, sustainable, and healthy diets.”

The research also identified a lack of consensus about the scope of processing, the degree of processing and the aspects used to evaluate the healthiness of processed foods. Perceived conflicts of interest and different areas of expertise within this broad topic may be why clear communications about processed foods are hard to come by and why it is difficult to frame the risks and benefits of food processing.

This research study was part of a collaborative PhD research project between the European Food Information Council and the University of Surrey.

Paper: Sadler CR, et al. (2022). “Even We Are Confused”: A Thematic Analysis of Professionals’ Perceptions of Processed Foods and Challenges for Communication. Frontiers in Nutrition, 9(February): 1-14.

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