Understanding processed foods

We hear more and more about processed foods! They have become the workhorse of nutritionists who accuse them of damaging the health of the population. However, the consumer remains confused by the classification of foods according to their degree of processing. Update on the subject!

Food classification processed

The NOVA classification, a name and not an acronym, was developed by a group of researchers affiliated with the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Introduced in 2009, it allows food to be categorized according to the degree, nature and usefulness of their processing. The NOVA classification includes four categories numbered from 1 to 4.

The four categories

1. The first category includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Unprocessed foods include edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or animals (muscle, eggs, milk, organ meats), fungi, algae, and water. As for minimally processed foods, these are unprocessed foods that have undergone processes such as pasteurization, refrigeration or drying.

Examples of foods belonging to this first category:

  • Vegetables and fruits, fresh, frozen or dried;
  • Grains like rice, brown or white;
  • Legumes, such as kidney beans;
  • Meat, poultry, fish and seafood, whole or in various cuts (steaks, fillets, etc.), cooled or frozen, without added oil or salt;
  • Eggs ;
  • Milk, pasteurized or powdered;
  • Fruit or vegetable juices, fresh or pasteurized, without sugar, sweeteners or added flavors;
  • Flour ;
  • Pasta and couscous, without added salt or oil;
  • Nuts and seeds, no added salt or sugar;
  • Spices and herbs, fresh or dried;
  • Plain yogurt, without added sugar or sweeteners;
  • Tea and coffee, no added sugar.

2. The second category includes processed culinary ingredients. These are foods derived from the first category or having undergone processes such as refining and grinding. There are vegetable oils such as olive oil or linseed oil, butter, bacon, salt, honey, maple syrup and sugar.

3. The third category includes processed foods. These foods are obtained by adding sugar, oil or salt to foods of the first category. They generally contain few ingredients and can be identified as modified versions of foods belonging to the first category. For example, they include canned vegetables and fruits, salty or sweet nuts and seeds, smoked meats, canned fish, cheeses, and unpackaged fresh breads.

4. The last category includes ultra-processed foods. These foods are products made in whole or in part from substances derived from foods or additives with little or no intact foods from the first category. The manufacture of these foods involves several food processing processes, hence the term “ultra-processed”.

Examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • Soft drinks and sugary fruit drinks;
  • Packaged, sweet or savory snacks;
  • Ice cream, chocolate and candy;
  • Industrial bakery products such as packaged breads, cookies, pastries, cakes and cake mixes;
  • Breakfast cereals;
  • Cereal bars;
  • Margarines;
  • Bars and energy drinks;
  • Sweetened milk drinks;
  • Sweet fruit yogurts;
  • Ready-to-reheat meals;
  • Products made from reconstituted meat such as sausages and chicken or fish nuggets;
  • Infant formulas;
  • “Health” or “slimming” products such as meal replacements;
  • Instant soups.

Why use the classification NOVA?

In other words, why is it important to consider the degree of food processing?

According to research and the NOVA classification, ultra-processed foods have a negative impact on the quality of the diet.

First, they help increase the consumption of energy-dense foods, trans fats, saturated fats and free sugars (the sugars added or naturally present in syrups, honey and fruit juices).

Second, they reduce the intake of fiber and various micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.

Other studies also show a direct link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome and dyslipidemias.

By using the NOVA classification, consumers can better differentiate foods.

In conclusion

A healthy diet should be based on unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

Thanks to the NOVA classification, consumers can make better food choices every day by being able to identify foods to favor (unprocessed or minimally processed), to limit (processed) and to avoid (ultra-processed).

This classification is also recognized by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Pan American Health Organization as a valid tool for research in nutrition and health. public.

On your aprons!


(1) 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, pp. 5–17., Doi: 10.1017 / s1368980017000234.

(2) Monteiro, Carlos Augusto, et al. “NOVA. The star shines bright. ” World Nutrition, flight. 7, no. 1-3, 2016, pp. 28-38.

Thanks to Marie-Noël Marsan, nutrition intern, for her invaluable collaboration.

For further advice: visit isabellehuot.com


About Victoria Smith

Victoria Smith who hails from Toronto, Canada currently runs this news portofolio who completed Masters in Political science from University of Toronto. She started her career with BBC then relocated to TorontoStar as senior political reporter. She is caring and hardworking.

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