The NOVA Food Classification system for food processing was designed by Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo.
The NOVA system aims to help people make better choices by highlighting the extend of the processing the food available in stores undergoes. By processing, the NOVA system refers to all physical, biological and chemical processes that occur after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or used in the preparation of dishes and meals1.
Why is this important?
First of all, The World Health Organization has classified processed meats including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurts as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer) which means that there’s strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Eating processed meat increases your risk of bowel and stomach cancer.
Furthermore, there are numerous studies and articles that corelate ultra-processed food (UPF) with a higher risk of cancers in general, such as the “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort” (2018, BMJ). The study concluded with: “Ultra-processed food intake was associated with higher overall cancer risk (n=2228 cases; hazard ratio for a 10% increment in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet 1.12 (95% confidence interval 1.06 to 1.18); P for trend<0.001) and breast cancer risk (n=739 cases; hazard ratio 1.11 (1.02 to 1.22); P for trend=0.02). These results remained statistically significant after adjustment for several markers of the nutritional quality of the diet (lipid, sodium, and carbohydrate intakes and/or a Western pattern derived by principal component analysis).”2
Other studies regarding this subject are undergoing so, for now, we believe it is wise to be aware that consumption of ultra-processed food could have an impact in our health.
The food processing scoring system3
Unprocessed: edible parts of plants (fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, roots, tubers) or of animals (muscle, offals, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
Minimally processed: unprocessed foods altered by industrial processes such as removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, roasting, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, non-alcoholic fermentation, and other methods that do not add salt, sugar, oils or fats or other food substances to the original food. The main aim of these processes is to extend the life of unprocessed foods, enabling their storage for longer use, and, often, to make their preparation easier or more diverse. Infrequently, minimally processed foods contain additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties or prevent proliferation of microorganisms.
Substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting or mining. Their use is in the preparation, seasoning and cooking of group 1 foods. These products may contain additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties or prevent proliferation of microorganisms.
Products made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods, using preservation methods such as canning and bottling, and, in the case of breads and cheeses, using non-alcoholic fermentation. Processes and ingredients here aim to increase the durability of group 1 foods and make them more enjoyable by modifying or enhancing their sensory qualities. These products may contain additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties or prevent proliferation of microorganisms.
Formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’), many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.
Processes enabling the manufacture of ultra-processed foods include the fractioning of whole foods into substances, chemical modifications of these substances, assembly of unmodified and modified food substances using industrial techniques such as extrusion, moulding and prefrying, frequent application of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable (“cosmetic additives”), and sophisticated packaging, usually with synthetic materials.
Ingredients often include sugar, oils and fats, and salt, generally in combination; substances that are sources of energy and nutrients but of no or rare culinary use such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and protein isolates; cosmetic additives such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling, and glazing agents; and additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties or prevent proliferation of microorganisms.
Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable products (low cost ingredients, long shelf-life, emphatic branding), convenient (ready-to-consume) hyperpalatable snacked products liable to displace all other NOVA food groups, notably group 1 foods.
- Food, Nutrition & Fitness I: The Digestion Journey Begins with Food Choices. Compiled in 2018 by EduChange with guidance from NUPENS, Sao Paulo. [online] https://educhange.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/NOVA-Classification-Reference-Sheet.pdf
- Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort, 2018. [online] https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k322
- Monteiro, C.A.; Cannon, G.; Levy, R.B.; Moubarac, J.-C.; Louzada, M.L.; Rauber, F.; Khandpur, N.; Cediel, G.; Neri, D.; Martinez-Steele, E.; et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019, 22, 936–941, doi:10.1017/S1368980018003762.