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NOVA – Everyone needs to know about it!

by Mila McManus, MD

NOVA is the most widely used food classification system according to degree of processing. The way they are classified may surprise you!

NOVA is the most widely used food classification system according to the degree of processing. Understanding the categories can be helpful for choosing less processed foods.  The way they are classified may surprise you!  

Food processing refers to any deliberate alteration in a food occurring between the production of raw foods or food ingredients and the point of destination or consumption of a final product. Food processing also varies in purpose, including preservation, safety, quality, availability, convenience, innovation, taste, sustainability, and extent of processing[1]. Not all processing is bad or harmful to your health. What is becoming unquestionable is that Ultra-processed foods [UPFs] are responsible, in large part, for common lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes.  These were rare a century ago.


Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

                Included in this group are edible parts of plants and animals [i.e. vegetables, fruits, meat], as well as algae [i.e., spirulina, chlorella], fungi [i.e., mushrooms], and water.  Food may be crushed, dried, fermented, pasteurized, ground, or frozen, but may not have any additives such as salt, sugar, oils, fats, or other culinary ingredients.

Group 2 – Processed Culinary Ingredients

                Included in this group are substances mined or extracted from nature such as spices, salt, herbs, seeds, nuts, olive oil, sugar, vinegar, starches, honey, syrups extracted from trees  [i.e., maple], and butter.

Group 3 – Processed Foods

                Included in this group are relatively simple food products made by adding processed culinary ingredients from Group 2, such as sugar and salt, to unprocessed Group 1 foods. They can be baked, boiled, canned, bottled or fermented. Additives can be included to enhance shelf-life, protect properties of unprocessed foods, prevent the spread of microorganisms, or make them more enjoyable.  Examples include cheese, canned vegetables, salted nuts, fruits in syrup, and dried or canned fish.  Breads, pastries, cakes, biscuits, snacks, and some meat products fall into this group when they are made predominantly from Group 1 and Group 2 foods.

Group 4 – Ultra-Processed Foods [UPFs]

                Formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes. Group 1 foods often compose a small proportion of their ingredients or are even lacking entirely.  Ultra-processing often introduces food substances of little or no culinary use, such as hydrogenated oil, modified starch, protein isolate, and high fructose corn syrup.  Processes include extrusion, molding, and pre-frying, along with the addition of various cosmetic additives, including those for flavor enhancement and color.

 It’s not difficult to distinguish the dramatic shift from Group 1, 2, and 3 foods to the UPFs in Group 4. UPFs are not real foods, but rather are fabricated, created, engineered substances, and often contain ZERO Group 1 food. A new synthetic milk, genetically engineered from yeast, was found to have ninety-two mysterious, unknown compounds in it![3] [more on that to come] Ultra-processed foods now make up 75% or more of the foods found in grocery stores, and about 58% of the calories that U.S. adults and children ages 1 and older consume in a day, according to an analysis of federal data collected from 2001 to 2018[4].  Virtually all fast food falls into Group 4 UPFs!  Most food products in a bag or package are also UPFs. More and more, studies are linking diets high in UPFs with increased risks for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

According to Mira Dessey, The Ingredient Guru and nutrition educator, and author of The Pantry Principle (2013),  the top ten food ingredients most harmful to our health[5] , and found in UPFs, are:

  • Artificial Colors [FD&C Red #2, for example]
  • Artificial Sweeteners [Sucralose, Saccharin, Aspartame are the most common]
  • BHA & BHT
  • Brominated Vegetable Oil
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Hydrogenated Oils
  • Mono-sodium Glutamate, a.k.a. MSG
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite
  • Soy, Corn, Cottonseed, and Canola oils

Grand Takeaway:  If it is cheap, tasty, and convenient, or marked as “low in sugar”, “heart healthy”, even “gluten-free”, it is most likely a Group 4 UPF.   

 Mira says, “ You are what you eat. Don’t be fast, cheap, and easy.”  

 Make Group 1 and 2 NOVA your primary sources for food and observe the difference and quality of your life and health!

Be Well!

[1] Capozzi, F., Magkos, F., Fava, F., Milani, G.P., Agostoni, C., Astrup, A., & Saguy, I. S. (2021). A multidisciplinary perspective of ultra-processed foods and associated food processing technologies: A view of the sustainable road ahead [Review]. Nutrients, 13, 3948. http://doi.org/10.3390/nuf13113948

[2] Heldman, D. R., & Lund, D. B. (2011) Beginning, current, and future of food engineering: A perspective. In J. M. Aguilera, G.V. Barbosa-Canovas, R. Simpson, J. Welti-Chanes, and D. Bermundez-Aguirre (Eds.), Food Engineering Interfaces (pp. 3-18). Springer Publishing.

[3] The Checkout, Episode 157, Dr. John Fagan’s Concerning New Findings about “Animal Free” Dairy, 21:00.

[4] Petersen, Andrea. (November 15, 2023) How eating ultra-processed foods can affect your health. The Wall Street Journal (A14).

[5] Dessey, M. NE (October 17, 2023), Top 10 Food Ingredients to Avoid. Instagram.

By |2024-01-11T07:00:28-05:00January 11th, 2024|General|