Academic and research departmentsFaculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre, School of Biosciences and Medicine.
My research project
Understanding perceptions of processed foods
This is a collaborative PhD project between the University of Surrey and the European Food Information Council (EUFIC).
‘Processed food’ is currently a hot topic of debate. This PhD study will examine how processed foods are conceptualised, in the scientific literature, in the media, in dietary guidelines and by consumers, with the objectives to:
- Critically review how processed foods are defined
- Analyse the discourse around processed foods on social media
- Analyse how processed foods are positioned in dietary guidelines
- Analyse consumers’ perceptions of processed foods
Processed foods are increasingly under the spotlight since the development of classification systems based on proxies for food processing. Published critical reviews and commentaries suggest different views among professional disciplines about the definition and classification of processed food. There is a need to further understand perspectives of professionals on the conceptualisation of processed food and the agreements and disagreements among experts, to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue and aid communication to the public. The aim of this research was to elicit views and understandings of professionals on processed food, their perceptions of lay people's perceptions of the same, and their perspectives on the challenges of communicating about processed foods to the public. The online discussion groups brought together a range of professionals (n = 27), covering the fields of nutrition, food technology, policy making, industry, and civil society, mixed in 5 heterogenous groups. Through thematic analysis the following themes relating to the conceptualisation of processed food and challenges for communication were identified: (1) Broad concepts that need differentiation; (2) Disagreements on scope and degree of processing; (3) The role of food processing within the food system: the challenges in framing risks and benefits; and (4) The challenge of different perspectives and interests for risk communication. Throughout the discussions blurred lines in the characterisation of processing, processed foods, and unhealthy foods were observed. Participants agreed that consensus is important, but difficult. Participants identified a need for further interdisciplinary dialogue, including public engagement, to break down the observed issues, and work towards a mutual understanding and develop clear communication messages.
Background: Processed foods are typically praised/revered for their convenience, palatability, and novelty; however, their healthfulness has increasingly come under scrutiny. Classification systems that categorise foods according to their “level of processing” have been used to predict diet quality and health outcomes and inform dietary guidelines and product development. However, the classification criteria used are ambiguous, inconsistent and often give less weight to existing scientific evidence on nutrition and food processing effects; critical analysis of these criteria creates conflict amongst researchers. Scope and approach: We examine the underlying basis of food classification systems and provide a critical analysis of their purpose, scientific basis, and distinguishing features by thematic analysis of the category definitions. Key findings and conclusions: These classification systems were mostly created to study the relationship between industrial products and health. There is no consensus on what factors determine the level of food processing. We identified four defining themes underlying the classification systems: 1. Extent of change (from natural state); 2. Nature of change (properties, adding ingredients); 3. Place of processing (where/by whom); and 4. Purpose of processing (why, essential/cosmetic). The classification systems embody socio-cultural elements and subjective terms, including home cooking and naturalness. Hence, “processing” is a chaotic conception, not only concerned with technical processes. Most classification systems do not include quantitative measures but, instead, imply correlation between “processing” and nutrition. The concept of “whole food” and the role of the food matrix in relation to healthy diets needs further clarification; the risk assessment/management of food additives also needs debate.
A better understanding of food-related behaviour and its determinants can be achieved through harmonisation and linking of the various data-sources and knowledge platforms. We describe the key decision-making in the development of a prototype of the Determinants and Intake Platform (DI Platform), a data platform that aims to harmonise and link data on consumer food behaviour. It will be part of the Food Nutrition Health Research Infrastructure (FNH-RI) that will facilitate health, social and food sciences. The decision-making was based on the evidence of user needs and data characteristics that guided the specification of the key building blocks of the DI Platform. Eight studies were carried out, including consumer online survey; interview studies of key DI Platform stakeholders; desk research and workshops. Consumers were most willing to share data with universities, then industry and government. Trust, risk perception and altruism predicted willingness to share. For most other stakeholders non-proprietary data was most likely to be shared. Lack of data standards, and incentives for sharing were the main barriers for sharing data among the key stakeholders. The value of various data types would hugely increase if linked with other sources. Finding the right balance between optimizing data sharing and minimizing ethical and legal risks was considered a key challenge. The development of DI Platform is based on careful balancing of the user, technical, business, legal and ethical requirements, following the FAIR principles and the need for financial sustainability, technical flexibility, transparency and multi-layered organisational governance. •There is a need to better support science on food intake and its determinants (DI).•DI Platform links consumer, business, science-generated data on food consumption.•Decision-making is based on evaluations of user needs and data characteristics.•The final design balances user, technology, business and governance requirements.•DI Platform supports the Food Nutrition Health Research Infrastructure initiative.