Ultra-processed foods brings new opportunities and challenges

Food industry professional Julian Mellentin has predicted that consumers’ expectations for convenient, packaged foods to be simpler and less processed are set to become more important over the rest of this decade.

He also suggested that there was growing evidence that consumers are increasingly shunning ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and looking for more “real foods”. In a recent survey of consumers by New Nutrition Business, of which Mellentin is director, 20% of Americans and 40% of Spanish consumers said they were trying to avoid UPFs.

“The growing consumer interest in ‘less processed’ has grown out of the clean label trend of identifying something undesirable in our food and avoiding it,” said Mellentin. “What’s different is that we are entering a new phase. Brands will have to do more to reinvent “ultra-processed foods” and to deliver products that get closer to consumers’ expectations of ‘real food’.”

Avoiding UPFs means, to a growing number of consumers, choosing fresh and natural foods. When the International Food Information Council (IFIC) asked Americans about the most common attributes of a healthy food, the top answer, given by 37% of people, was “fresh”, while 20% of consumers said “minimal or no processing”.

“The opportunity over the next three to five years is for packaged food companies — gradually and step-by-step — to renovate products,” said Mellentin. “That will require a focus on ingredients and processing technology which deliver the safety, convenience and palatability people seek while doing so with as little processing as possible, or at least with a type of processing that people accept.”

“Ingredient suppliers have an important role to play in enabling this change, just as they have through the last 20 years of changing consumer preferences about clean label and free-from,” he added.

Companies need not to renovate their entire product line, said Mellentin: “A significant percentage of mainstream consumers want to continue enjoying their favourite foods just as they are. The result may be that companies will have some products within their portfolio that meet consumer expectations for less processed and real food, just as today they have free-from or gluten-free lines in their portfolio.”

In his recent report, “10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition & Health 2023”, Mellentin noted that there were many companies for whom “simply processed” and “real” are already part of their strategy:

Yoplait’s French-inspired Oui by Yoplait yoghurt, marketed in the US, communicates simple ingredients and artisanal-style packaging and production. It was the first product of its kind from General Mills, the world’s 10th biggest food company. The simplicity of the production process is explained to consumers. Oui achieved over $100m in year one retail sales with 3 SKUs and has since been expanded to 26 SKUs.

Danone is responding to the trend in Spain, where it may be the most advanced. An amazing 40% of Spanish people claim to be avoiding UPFs — the highest number in Europe. The desire to avoid UPFs is partly cultural, but it also owes something to Carlos Rios, a Spanish blogger and nutrition guru with 1.5m followers on Instagram. He is the creator of Realfooding, a movement which encourages people to avoid UPFs. Danone has become the first major food company to engage with the Realfooding project. One of Danone’s natural drinking yoghurts, with just four ingredients, now carries the Realfooding endorsement.

Technology has an important role to perform in enabling packaged products to deliver on consumer expectations. US-based plant milk marketer Elmhurst has developed a technology called HydroRelease, which enables it to create a two-ingredient, nutritionally-dense plant milk which delivers on consumer expectations of simple processing and few ingredients, in marked contrast to most plant milks on the market.