Understanding NOVA: A Modern Approach to Food Categorization

Food Security Information

Ian C. Langtree - Content Writer/Editor for Disabled World
Published: 2024/07/07
Publication Type: Informative
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: The NOVA Food Classification System is a framework that categorizes foods into four groups based on the extent and purpose of industrial processing they undergo. Developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, in 2009, this system aims to provide a clearer understanding of the health implications associated with different types of food processing. The NOVA Food Classification System has garnered mixed reactions from experts in the fields of nutrition, food science, and public health.


NOVA helps people "group foods according to the extent and purpose of the processing they undergo. Food processing as identified by NOVA involved 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 meals." The NOVA Food Classification System has been used worldwide in nutrition and public health research, policy, and guidance as a tool for understanding the health implications of different food products.

Main Digest

In the NOVA classification system, descriptive criteria are used to assign foods to one of four groups based on processing-related criteria. Food can be categorized in one of four ways:

The Golden Rule: "Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods."

Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods

Unprocessed or Natural foods are obtained directly from plants or animals and do not undergo any alteration following their removal from nature.

Minimally processed foods are natural foods that have been submitted to cleaning, removal of inedible or unwanted parts, fractioning, grinding, drying, fermentation, pasteurization, cooling, freezing, or other processes that may subtract part of the food, but which do not add oils, fats, sugar, salt or other substances to the original food.

Examples of Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Food Include:

Group 2: Oils, Fats, Salt, and Sugar

Group 2 is also called Processed Culinary Ingredients. These are products extracted from natural foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining. They are used in homes and restaurants to season and cook food and thus create varied and delicious dishes and meals of all types, including broths and soups, salads, pies, breads, cakes, sweets, and preserves.

Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations. As long as they are used in moderation in culinary preparations based on natural or minimally processed foods, oils, fats, salt, and sugar contribute toward diverse and delicious diets without rendering them nutritionally unbalanced.

Examples of Processed Culinary Ingredients Include:

Group 3: Processed Foods

Processed foods are products manufactured by industry with the use of salt, sugar, oil or other substances (Group 2) added to natural or minimally processed foods (Group 1) to preserve or to make them more palatable. They are derived directly from foods and are recognized as versions of the original foods. They are usually consumed as a part of or as a side dish in culinary preparations made using natural or minimally processed foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients.

Examples of Processed Food Include:

Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed food (UPF) (also referred to as predigested food) are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, molding and pre-processing by frying. Beverages may be ultra-processed. Group 1 foods are a small proportion of, or are even absent from, ultra-processed products.

Examples Ultra-Processed Food Include:

Continued below image.
Asparagus, tomatoes, and slices of cooked meat on a plate.
Asparagus, tomatoes, and slices of cooked meat on a plate.

Noteworthy Criticisms of the NOVA Food Classification System

Some food scientists contend that NOVA lacks a solid scientific foundation and does not accurately reflect the complexities of food processing and its impacts on health. The system is criticized for making broad generalizations about the healthfulness of foods based primarily on processing level rather than nutritional composition.

Critics argue that NOVA oversimplifies food classification by grouping diverse products together based on processing level rather than nutritional content. For example, it places high-fiber breakfast cereals, plant-based burgers, and alcoholic beverages all in the "ultra-processed" category despite their vastly different nutritional profiles. NOVA is also accused of overlooking the potential benefits of food processing, such as improving food safety, extending shelf life, and enhancing nutrient bio-availability. Critics argue that not all processing is detrimental to health.

Some researchers criticize studies using NOVA for relying too heavily on correlations between ultra-processed food consumption and health outcomes without establishing clear causal mechanisms.


While the above criticisms highlight potential flaws in the NOVA system, it is worth noting that some researchers still find value in the classification. They argue that despite its limitations, NOVA draws attention to important issues in modern food production and consumption patterns. The debate surrounding NOVA underscores the complexity of food classification and the need for nuanced approaches to understanding the relationship between food processing, nutrition, and health.

NOVA Food Classification System Reference Material

Food groups and examples referenced were adapted from the NOVA Food Classification system, which was designed by Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Cite This Page (APA): Langtree, I. C. (2024, July 7). Understanding NOVA: A Modern Approach to Food Categorization. Disabled World. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from www.disabled-world.com/fitness/nutrition/foodsecurity/nova.php

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