A survey by the International Food Information Council highlights Americans’ varied perceptions and consumption habits regarding processed foods, revealing a complex relationship influenced by health consciousness and understanding of food processing.

Rachel French, Contributing writer

March 29, 2024

2 Min Read
processed food

At a Glance

  • Most Americans are unclear on what exactly processed food means, despite many eating them and wanting to be healthy.
  • The top reasons people choose processed foods are ease of preparation, taste and longer shelf life.
  • Consumers associate healthfulness with certain labels like “no artificial ingredients” and “organic.”

A new survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) revealed consumers are conflicted about the healthfulness of processed foods.

Almost a fifth (18%) of Americans said eating less processed foods is something they can do to eat healthier, according to IFIC’s Public Perception of Processed Foods in a Healthy Diet survey. More than half (53%), however, said they think processed foods can be part of a healthy diet.

The majority of Americans (69%) reported eating processed foods at least sometimes and only 4% said they never eat processed foods. The top reasons consumers eat processed foods is because they’re easy to prepare (33%), they enjoy the taste (32%) and they can be stored longer (29%).

How consumers feel about health affects the number of processed foods they eat, the survey found.

For instance, among people who reported that a healthy diet is very important, 59% said they eat processed foods at least sometimes and 40% said they eat processed foods rarely or not at all. On the flip side, consumers who said a healthy diet is not at all important reported they ate more processed foods. Among this group, 77% said they eat processed foods at least sometimes and 19% said they eat processed foods rarely or not at all.

Only 4% of consumers said a healthy diet is not at all important to them, versus 40% who said a healthy diet is very important.

The report found most consumers consider such processed foods as frozen broccoli (64%), frozen berries (62%), vanilla Greek yogurt (60%) and canned tuna (55%) to be foods that meet the parameters of a healthy diet.

Few consumers, however, consider foods like frozen vegetables, frozen fruit, dried vegetables and dried fruit to be “processed foods.” Fewer than a third (31%) said they consider frozen vegetables to be processed foods, while a slightly higher number said frozen vegetables (32%), dried vegetables (32%) and dried fruit (33%) were processed foods.

That’s not surprising, considering a whopping 70% of consumers said they do not fully understand what a processed food is, per IFIC’s survey.

Foods that consumers are more likely to consider “processed foods” include store-bought cookies (75%), candy and ice cream (73%), American cheese slices (71%), cake and canned meat (68%), ready-made baked goods (67%), deli meat and beef jerky (66%), and white bread and cereal (65%).

Interestingly, consumer perception of a food’s healthfulness was, in some cases, linked to the perceived processing of the food.

IFIC’s survey found the top labels that indicate the healthfulness of a food or beverage include “no artificial ingredients” (34%), “no additives” (26%), “organic” (22%), “no added sugar” (19%) and “natural” (19%).

Looking at yogurt products, consumers were more likely to consider “flavored yogurt” to be a processed food, identified by 62% of consumers as a processed food, versus flavored yogurt with less added sugar (58%), low-fat plain yogurt (39%) or low-fat plain Greek yogurt (39%).

About the Author(s)

Rachel French

Contributing writer

Rachel French joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products Insider, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. French left Informa Markets in 2019, but continues to freelance for both FBI and NPI.

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