As we all endeavour to make better, more informed choices about the food we eat, understanding the Nova classification system which groups foods into one of four categories from unprocessed to ultra processed is a useful tool. But it’s a tad complex and, quite frankly, makes for rather dry reading! In this article, we’ll simplify the classification so you can quickly and easily identify which category different foods belong to
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Developed by a team of Brazilian researchers, the Nova classification system serves as a framework that categorises food products based on their extent of industrial processing. From fresh produce to heavily processed items lining supermarket shelves, Nova provides a comprehensive lens through which we can understand the modern food environment.
Let’s dive into the four categories
Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
This category includes natural foods that have not undergone significant processing or had any added substances. These foods are typically fresh and include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and meats. They often retain their original nutritional composition and are considered the healthiest option in the NOVA classification.
Examples of unprocessed or minimally processed foods:
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries and blueberries
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli and bell peppers
- Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, black beans and kidney beans
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds
- Fresh meats: Chicken, beef, pork and fish
- Whole grains: Brown rice, quinoa, oats and barley
- Dairy products: Milk, yogurt and natural cheeses
Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients
This group comprises substances obtained from unprocessed or minimally processed foods, which are used in kitchens to prepare and cook dishes. Here we’re referring to substances derived from unprocessed or minimally processed foods that undergo some form of processing before they are used in cooking or food preparation.
These processes are often carried out to enhance the taste, texture or shelf life of the ingredients. The processing may involve techniques such as grinding, pressing, refining or combining different components to create the final product.
Examples of processed culinary ingredients include:
- Cooking oils: Olive oil, coconut oil and sunflower oil
- Butter and margarine: Used in baking and cooking
- Sweeteners: White sugar, brown sugar, honey and maple syrup
- Salt: Table salt and sea salt, used for seasoning
- Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and white vinegar, used in dressings and marinades
- Spices: Cinnamon, paprika, cumin and turmeric, used to add flavour to dishes
- Condiments: Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and soy sauce, used to enhance the taste of various foods
Group 3: Processed foods
Processed foods are food products that have undergone specific alterations during processing, often for the purpose of preservation, flavour enhancement or convenience. These alterations may include various methods such as canning, freezing, refrigeration, or other forms of processing that help extend the shelf life of the food. The processing may involve cooking, grinding, or adding preservatives to prevent spoilage
It's important to note that the term "processed" itself doesn't necessarily imply a negative connotation, as some processing methods can actually contribute to food safety and accessibility. However, it is essential to be mindful of the types and amounts of processed foods consumed, as some processed foods may contain high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium, which can be detrimental to overall health if consumed excessively
If your diet largely compromises nutrient dense and minimally processed foods then you’re on the right track.
Examples of processed foods include:
- Canned fruits and vegetables: Canned peas, sweetcorn and tomatoes
- Packaged bread: Whole wheat bread, white bread and multigrain bread
- Cheese: Processed cheese slices, cheese spreads and cheese blocks
- Roasted nuts: Almonds, peanuts and cashews
- Packaged tofu and tempeh
- Breakfast cereals: Rolled oats, bran flakes and whole grain cereals
Group 4: Ultra-processed foods
This category includes foods that have undergone extensive processing, involving the addition of various artificial ingredients such as colours, Flavors, emulsifiers and other additives.
These foods often contain high levels of sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are typically ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that are convenient but often lack nutritional value. Not only do their wreck your health, but ultra-processed foods have even been shown to cause depression.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Packaged snacks: Chips, biscuits and baked cookies
- Sugary drinks: Soda, energy drinks and ordinary sports nutrition
- Instant noodles and soups
- Pre-packaged meals: Frozen pizzas, microwave dinners and pre-made sandwiches
- Sweetened breakfast cereals: Chocolatey, sugary cereals - we all know the ones!
- Processed meats: Sausages, hot dogs and chicken nuggets
- Margarine and other hydrogenated fats
Most energy gels are, quite obviously, ultra processed food. But when you look at Chia Energy Gels which contain literally just four 100% natural ingredients, you can see why they're in a league of their own when it comes to your performance and health