*Geek Box: NOVA

*Geek Box: NOVA Classification

Most food classification systems have historically focused on broad food-group characteristics [e.g., “cereals and grains”], or definitions related to specific nutrients in a given food [e.g., “calcium-rich”].  However, these systems do not account for the processing techniques used in the manufacture of foods which define the food-scape of industrialised countries [and, increasingly, developing countries].

However, the term ‘processing’ is itself meaningless unless more refined definitions are used to characterise the type and extent of processing, and the nutritional composition of the food that is ultimately produced. At the very pedantic level, ‘processing’ may refer to any change of state, e.g., taking a raw salmon fillet and cooking it. Indeed, this argument is commonly deployed by the food industry to suggest an equivalence to foods defined by ‘processing’, as if the aforementioned transformation from raw to cooked salmon is equivocal to the manufacture of a BigMac.

The NOVA classification system was developed to provide specific, clear, and workable definitions to food processing. NOVA in fact is not an acronym [oddly], just a name. NOVA groups foods according to the type, extent, and purpose of industrial processing that they have undergone. ‘Food processing’ in this context is defined as the physical, chemical, and biological processes used on a food after it has been separated from nature, and before consumption by consumers.

There are four NOVA categories:

  1. unprocessed/minimally processed foods;
  2. processed culinary ingredients;
  3. processed foods;
  4. ultra-processed foods.

Group 1 foods – minimally processed – are the edible parts of plants or animals once they are separated from nature, i.e., a chicken breast or pumpkin seeds. Group 2 includes ingredients like, for example, olive oil or butter, sugar or salt, which are derived from Group 1 foods by processes like churning, milling, pressing, refining, or drying. Group 2 foods are not usually consumed by themselves, but rather in the preparation of fresh meals or as condiments to meals or snacks.

Group 3 – processed foods – includes bottled or canned foods, cheeses, or baked goods like breads. Group 3 foods are recognisable as modified versions of Group 1 foods, for example cheese is recognised as derived from milk and the processing techniques applied to produce bread or cheese involve the addition of Group 2 to Group 1 foods, e.g., flour, eggs, water, salt or milk, rennet, salt. Finally, Group 4 – ultra-processed foods – are not modified versions of Group 1 foods, but rather industrial formulations made with little, if any, intact recognisable Group 1 foods.

Ultra-processed foods may be produced predominantly with Group 2 foods – fats, oils, sugars, salt – but contain additional ingredients which are not typically available household ingredients, including additives, preservatives, antioxidants, stabilising gums, and often use ingredients which themselves have been industrially processed, e.g., hydrogenation [of oils] or hydrolysation [of proteins]. Group 4 foods may include packaged foods and snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages, reconstituted meat products, pre-prepared frozen meals, etc.

The NOVA classification system, like any food classification, has strengths and weaknesses. It may be too broad to make nuanced dietary recommendations, and often the high watermark of recommendations derived from NOVA is simply “avoid Group 4”. There are often assumptions that degree of processing reflects nutrient status, however, this is not entirely correct as numerous habitual ultra-processed foods – for example breakfast cereals – are fortified with a range of nutrients. However, as a system that reflects the realities of the current food supply and habitually consumed foods at the population level, NOVA captures the characteristics of these foods better than, for example, the food pyramid or ‘MyPlate’. For further reading on the merits and pros and cons of NOVA, see references (13,14).