NOVA | A processed food definition that makes sense

Researchers in Brazil have developed a processed food definition that helps us know how much food processing is too much.

Modern food is unprocessed, minimally processed, or ultra-processed and with a processed food definition, it is easier to decide which is which or even if it matters.

Humans have been processing food since we became humans. Beginning with smashing bones for the nutritious marrow inside and then cooking to release the nutrients from meat and tubers that were important in developing this big brain.

Over history, humans have created a diversity of diet and learnt more elaborate techniques to make food tastier, digestible, safer, transportable and, most significantly, marketable. Modern food processing is now hugely complex on an industrial scale, creating tens of thousands of food products from a handful of core ingredients.

Processed food is what the majority of humanity eats.

So what is a good processed food definition?

The NOVA processed food definition

Researchers in Brazil have developed a classification system called NOVA, which provides criteria to divide food into four groups based on their level of processing and provide a processed food definition.

Group One | Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Group One are unprocessed or minimally processed foods that we can eat straight from nature (fruits, leaves, tubers, meat, fat, eggs, milk) with minimal processing, peeling, grinding, freezing, cooking, fermenting, etc.

Group Two | Processed culinary ingredients

Group Two foods are processed culinary ingredients obtained directly from Group one foods using slightly more industrial processes (pressing, centrifuging, mining). These are ingredients like butter, salt, and oils; products used in preparing, seasoning, and cooking Group 1 food. 

elegant bottles of food oils, group two foods in the processed food definition
Image modified from sik-life

Group Three |  Processed foods produced using preservation

Group Three foods are processed foods made using preservation methods such as canning and bottling and, in the case of bread and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. These foods usually have two or three ingredients and are recognisable as modified versions of Group 1 foods.

chess on a breadboard alongside two slices of brown bread
Image modified from summa

Group Four | Ultra-processed foods

Group Four are ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products, and pre-prepared frozen dishes.

Ultra-processed foods are not just modified foods from Group 1, but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food.

These foods include additives intended to enhance the smell or taste of foods or to hide unpalatable aspects like smell or colour. These additives include dyes and other colours, colour stabilisers; flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners, and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants, and humectants.

Ultra-processing aims to create branded, convenient, hyper-palatable, and highly profitable products using low-cost ingredients. These food products are designed to displace other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are packaged attractively and marketed intensively.

supermarket shelves full of dozens of ultra-processed food products
Image modified from igorovsyannykov

Why is NOVA useful

From about the 1980s, packaged, branded, ‘convenience’ foods (Group 4) became prominent, particularly in those countries without strong culinary traditions and comparative wealth. An average American gets 60% of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods that do not grow on trees. In most Western economies, citizens get between 25 and 50% of the calories consumed from Group 4 foods.

Given the profitability of these foods and the marketing capacity of corporations with a global reach, these foods are also displacing traditional eating patterns in middle and low-income countries.

The idea for NOVA (a name not an acronym) came from the realisation that modern technology, when applied to food, had profoundly impacted not only what we eat but also our health. The foods our grandparents ate were those combinations of ingredients that made the vast variety of meals and dishes that we recognise from the various cultures and traditions across the world. These traditional cuisines use recipies with ingredients from Groups 1, 2 and 3 in the NOVA processed food definition.

The global spread and increasing proportion of Group 4 foods correlates with increasing rates of obesity and diabetes and other diseases. Diet has changed and with it the rates of poor metabolic health. The rates of obesity are rising everywhere with over 13% of adults obese and one in three overweight.   

NOVA was inspired by the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines that, rather than recommending a quantity of particular nutrients like fat or protein, or food groups like grains and vegetables, steer people away from ultra-process foods. These guidelines promote minimally processed food, show how these foods become meals, and embrace food’s cultural and social context.

NOVA is a useful processed food definition because it avoids the pitfalls of food star ratings and bizarre interpretations of the food pyramid approach to food education.

Is all processed food bad?

No, in fact, processing is often necessary. Fermentation turns flour into bread, pasteurisation makes milk safer to drink and that orange and that pineapple need to be peeled.

Foods in groups one, two and three have sustained generations of people since the invention of agriculture. 

However, there is not much positive to say about ultra-processed food. It is novel for our digestive system and the microbes in our guts that do most of the heavy lifting to convert food into energy and nutrients.

And the evidence of links between ultra-processed food and non-communicable diseases —heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer—is growing.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Providing enough food for feeding everyone well is now a 22 trillion kilocalories a day challenge just to supply food energy. A bigger challenge is providing these calories in food that also balances nutrition. 

Some food processing is desirable. It allows for better nutrient absorption and for the safe storage and transport of foods. Feeding everyone through ultra-processing of food to make products that are formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives is not feeding everyone well. A diet with little if any intact Group 1 food will see a decline in metabolic health and increase the risk of diet-related disease.

What the NOVA processed food definition does is make the choice of food simple. All you need to do for a sustainable diet is to fill the shopping basket with foods from groups 1, 2 & 3, foods with minimal processing, and avoid the ultra-processed group 4 foods.

Hero image modified from photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash


Chris is a latecomer to ecology but has happily landed where he should have been all along as an ecological practitioner in his bush regeneration business. When not out passionately managing land, trawling the evidence on nutrition, diet and health or carefully advising NGOs and government, he grows plants in his commercial nursery

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