Unpicking the NOVA ultra-processed foods classification
The most widely used classification for processed food in current use is called NOVA. Created by a team from the Department of Nutrition at Sao Paulo University and led by CA Monteiro, it was first published in 2009. Updated in 2019, the latest NOVA classification breaks foods into four groups based on the level of processing.
The following summary of the four groups focuses on the implications for meat products:
- Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed. For the meat sector unprocessed foods include the edible parts of animals such as meat in the form of steaks, fillets and other cuts such as offal. Minimally processed foods are unprocessed foods altered by the removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and processes that include grinding, chilling, freezing, placing in containers, and vacuum packaging.
- Group 2 – Processed Culinary Ingredients. These include oils, butter, lard, sugar and salt. The key point here is that they are rarely if ever consumed by themselves so, with the exception of animal fats group 2, products are of little importance for the meat sector.
- Group 3 – Processed Foods. These include some types of processed animal foods such as ham, bacon and pastrami. They are made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from group 2 to group 1 foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients and are recognisable as modified versions of group 1 foods. The ingredients infiltrate the foods and so the processes alter their nature.
- Group 4 – Ultra Processed Foods. Common ultra-processed products include carbonated soft drinks, sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks, confectionery, mass produced packaged breads, biscuits, pastries, cakes and margarine, pre-prepared meat dishes, poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products.
As you can see the NOVA system classifies steak and other cuts as unprocessed or minimally processed. Ham, bacon and pastrami as processed foods and sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products as Ultra Processed.
Applying the above classification, ground meat (Beef mince) should be a minimally processed product so why are burgers ultra processed? In British supermarkets consumers can buy 99% beef burgers with 1% salt and pepper and no other ingredients. So, does forming beef mince into a burger shape make mince into an ultra-processed food? Under the UK’s 1995 minced meat and meat preparations regulation a 99% burger would be a minced meat product.
Curious to find other meat classifications, an internet search revealed Diabetes UK’s position on mince and burgers; “Processed meat is meat that’s been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (such as bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni). However, this doesn’t include fresh burgers or mince – putting meat through a mincer doesn’t mean it becomes ‘processed’ unless it is modified further”.
Media coverage of a recent Processed Food and Health report by the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) included an assessment of the NOVA system and identified “uncertainties around the quality of evidence available”. They identified shortcomings in the system which focuses on food ingredients and processing but has little insight into nutrition and dietary guidelines. SACN are calling for more research in this area and concluded “Specific limitations of the NOVA classification system were that the categories are very broad and capture a wide range of foods and group together foods with differing nutritional attributes”. There appears to be some conflicting and confusing opinions on this topic and clearly the level of processing doesn’t necessarily correlate with the nutritional value of products on its own making any assessment of health outcomes for processed foods difficult. Given the recent increased media attention around Ultra Processed Foods and a clear lack of clarity or consumer guidance using NOVA is there a valid case for re-thinking how “Ultra processed food” is measured and if so, how will meat products fare in a revised assessment if nutritional density and a healthy, balanced diet is factored in?