ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS — “Ultra-processed food” (UPF) is a hot topic these days, but what exactly does it mean? And how do consumers feel about it?

To help answer those and related questions, Innova Market Insights recently surveyed US consumers, asking about their attitudes, beliefs and concerns about ultra-processed foods and how often they consume them.

Only 19% of the consumers Innova surveyed acknowledged they consume UPF daily. But since consumers don’t always have a precise definition of ultra-processed food — with 44% identifying it as fast food and junk food — the market research company noted that factor may limit consumers’ ability to rid their diets of UPF even if they plan to do so.

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods, derived from food constituents, or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources, according to the Nova classification system created in 2009 by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Ultra-processed foods often include cookies, ice cream, shakes, ready-to-eat meals, soft drinks, other sugary drinks, hamburgers and nuggets.

Innova’s survey found 27% of consumers view ready-made meals as being the most ultra-processed category of foods, followed by cakes, pastries, sweet goods and sugar confectionery. Boomers more often take this position, while Generation Z members consider cookies and salty snacks to be more deserving of the UPF description. Consumers also tend to associate with UPF artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, stabilizers and preservatives, according to Lu Ann Williams, Innova’s global insights director.

Survey respondents identified the least-processed categories as fish and seafood, bottled water and meat and poultry.

The survey also noted consumers’ concerns about the negative health qualities of UPF. Respondents said their reasons for reducing consumption were that “they are bad for my health,” have poor nutritional quality and contain unnatural ingredients. Health risks such as obesity, diabetes and high blood sugar levels are frequently associated with UPF, the survey noted.

Innova’s research indicated apprehension about UPF comes in part from many consumers believing such products are under-regulated. Fifty-two percent of baby boomers agree or strongly agree that UPF have insufficient regulations, and 34% of Gen Z feel the same. More than 50% of Gen Z and millennials and more than 60% of Generation X and boomers think a scoring system for classifying UPF would be useful.

So where does this leave consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and brands? Innova suggested one thing they can do to combat consumers’ UPF fears is provide transparent ingredient lists.

“More than half of consumers only want to consume products where they understand the ingredients list,” Williams said. “Reducing or eliminating ingredients that are seen as artificial can also help address consumer concerns about ultra-processed foods."

The ingredients survey respondents most often associate with UPF are artificial flavors (59%), artificial sweeteners (54%), preservatives (53%), artificial colors (52%) and stabilizers (40%).

Additional brand opportunities for growth Innova identified include innovating by balancing taste and affordability by including fresh, natural and whole products and their derivatives; reformulating by reducing or eliminating ingredients perceived as artificial; and communicating by focusing on gaining consumer trust to alleviate safety concerns about UPF.

A previous UPF survey published by GlobalData in February suggested plant-based alternatives are one of the biggest areas for reformulating and repositioning, and companies might consider leveraging food technology to shift negative consumer sentiment.

Innova plans to reveal additional insights from the UPF survey at the IFT FIRST Annual Event & Expo being held July 14-17 at McCormick Place in Chicago.