Canada's Food Guide recommends limiting the consumption of highly processed foods. What is a processed food Are all processed foods equal Is there a difference between one processed food and another Since 2009, there has been a tool, little known to the general public, which allows you to categorize foods according to their degree of processing: the NOVA classification.VA.
The NOVA classification
The NOVA classification was developed by researchers affiliated with the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. It makes it possible to classify foods according to the degree, nature and usefulness of their transformation rather than according to their botanical or animal origin as with the traditional food groups (vegetables andfruits, grain products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives). The NOVA classification is divided into four categories.
The four categories of the NOVA classification
In their report, The United Nations Nutrition Decade, the NOVA Food Classification and the Problem of Ultra-Processing, the researchers behind the classification define what foods fall into the four categories.s.
Category 1 of the NOVA classification
The first category includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Unprocessed foods include edible parts of plants (seeds, roots, stems, leaves, fruits) and animals (eggs, milk, muscles, organ meats), fungi, algae, and water. As for minimally processed foods, these are unprocessed foods modified by processes such as roasting, non-alcoholic fermentation and grinding. The purpose of these processes is to optimize the preservation of food or to make it edible. Examples of foods that fall into this first category are:
- Thefruits and fresh, squeezed, chilled, frozen or dried vegetables
- Mushrooms, fresh or dried
- Fresh or pasteurized fruit or vegetable juices, without sugars, sweeteners or flavorings
- Grain products such as rice, millet or barley
- Groats, flakes orflours
- Pasta, couscous and polenta, made from flours, flakes or groats and water
- Thenuts and seeds, no added salt or sugar
- Legumes such as white beans, green lentils and chickpeas
- Meat, poultry, fish and seafood, whole or cut, chilled or frozen
- Milk, pasteurized or powdered
- Plain yogurt with no added sugars or artificial sweeteners
- Aromatic herbs and spices such as pepper, cinnamon, thyme and oregano, fresh or dried
- thetea, the coffee and drinking water
Category 2 of the NOVA classification
The second category includes processed culinary ingredients. These are substances derived from food in the first category by processes such as refining, drying and pressing. These processes aim to create durable products used to season or cook foods in the first category. Indeed, they are usually not eaten alone, but in combination with foods of the first category. Processed culinary ingredients include:
- Sugar, molasses,Honey and maple syrup
- Butter, lard, lard and vegetable oils such asolive oil and sesame oil
- Starches (e.g. corn starch)
Category 3 of the NOVA classification
The third category is processed foods. These foods are obtained by adding ingredients from the second category (salt, sugar, oil, etc.) to the foods of the first category. The processes involved in their manufacture include different methods of cooking and preservation (e.g. non-alcoholic fermentation). The objective of these processes is to improve the durability or the organoleptic qualities of food of the first category. Processed foods generally consist of a few ingredients and can be recognized as modified versions of foods in the first category. They can be eaten alone or with other foods. Examples of processed foods include:
- canned fish
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds, sweet or savory
- Dried, salted or smoked meats
- Fresh cheeses
- fresh bread
Category 4 of the NOVA classification
Finally, the last category includes ultra-processed foods. These are products made mainly or entirely with substances derived from foods and additives, with little or no intact foods from the first category. Their ingredients typically include sugars, salt and/or fats (e.g. oils). Regarding the additives used in their manufacture, we can find dyes, colorings, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavorings. These additives are used to improve the organoleptic qualities of food or the final appearance of the product. Several food processing processes are used in the manufacture of these foods, hence the term ultra-processed. These processes include, among others, hydrogenation, hydrolysis and extrusion. The purpose of these processes is to produce practical, attractive and cost-effective products. In this fourth category are: :
- Carbonated, energy, milk or fruit drinks
- Sweetened yogurts
- Thesnacks packaged, sweet or savory
- ice creams,chocolates and thesweets
- Industrial breads and bakery products
- Margarines and spreads
- Cookies, pastries, cakes andcake mixes
- Thecereals for breakfast, cereal bars and energy bars
- Ready-to-use sauces
- Infant formula
- Products based on meat extracts such as chicken nuggets and sausages
- Health and slimming productsur »
- Ready-to-heat products
The usefulness of the NOVA classification
In recent years, the food offer has evolved enormously. With the appearance of ultra-processed foods, the usual food groups (vegetables and fruits, cereal products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives) no longer allow them to be distinguished from other foods. Additionally, research using the NOVA classification finds that ultra-processed foods have negative impacts on diet. On the one hand, they promote an increased consumption of foods with high energy density, saturated fats, trans fats and free sugars (added sugars and those naturally present in syrups, honey and fruit juices). On the other hand, they decrease the consumption of fiber and micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. Some studies also observe a direct association between ultra-processed foods and hypertension, obesity, syndrome metabolic (a set of factors that increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, suffering from heart disease and having a stroke) and dyslipidemias (blood profiles where the level of lipids is abnormal). With the NOVA classification, consumers can differentiate foods from the four categories and make informed food choices.
A healthy diet should favor foods belonging to the first category, that is, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. As for processed foods, they should be limited and ultra-processed foods avoided. The best way to do this: cook more!
- Monteiro, Carlos Augusto, et al. NOVA. The star shines bright.” WorldNutrition, flight. 7, no. 1-3, 2016, p. 28-38.
- Monteiro, Carlos Augusto, et al. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA Food Classification and the Trouble with Ultra-Processing.” Public Health Nutrition, flight. 21, no. 1, 2017, p. 517., doi:10.1017/s1368980017000234..
Article written by:
Marie-Noël Marsan, Nutritionist