Most of the food we eat is processed to some degree. Processed food is not unhealthy. It is, in fact, the food we evolved to eat. But modern methods of food processing have turned modern processed food into a wasteland.
A new food classification system was developed, called NOVA (not an acronym), that categorizes foods according to extent and purpose of food processing.
Food Classification, Public Health. NOVA. The Star Shines Bright., World Nutrition, January-March 2016
The following descriptions are from Open Food Facts, a food products database that defines a food by its NOVA group, among other things. It’s open source, global, and still adding foods. A great resource. The definitions in the NOVA document above are more extensive and include examples.
Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients
Group 3 – Processed foods
Group 4 – Ultra-processed food and drink products
Group 1. Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods
Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum-packaging. These processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage, or to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume. Many unprocessed or minimally processed foods are prepared and cooked at home or in restaurant kitchens in combination with processed culinary ingredients as dishes or meals.
Group 2. Processed Culinary Ingredients
Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, are substances derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying. The purpose of such processes is to make durable products that are suitable for use in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook Group 1 foods and to make with them varied and enjoyable hand-made dishes and meals, such as stews, soups and broths, salads, breads, preserves, drinks and desserts. They are not meant to be consumed by themselves, and are normally used in combination with Group 1 foods to make freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals.
Group 3. Processed Foods
Processed foods, such as bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads, are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods.
Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients, and are recognizable as modified versions of Group 1 foods. They are edible by themselves or, more usually, in combination with other foods.
The purpose of processing here is to increase the durability of Group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.
Group 4. Ultra-processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food.
Ingredients of these formulations usually include those also used in processed foods, such as sugars, oils, fats or salt. But ultra-processed products also include other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations. Some of these are directly extracted from foods, such as casein, lactose, whey and gluten.
Many are derived from further processing of food constituents, such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Additives in ultra-processed foods include some also used in processed foods, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers. Classes of additives found only in ultra-processed products include those used to imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects of the final product. These additives include dyes and other colours, colour stabilizers; 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.
A multitude of sequences of processes is used to combine the usually many ingredients and to create the final product (hence ‘ultra-processed’). The processes include several with no domestic equivalents, such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation, extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying.
The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create branded, convenient (durable, ready to consume), attractive (hyper-palatable) and highly profitable (low-cost ingredients) food products designed to displace all other food groups. Ultra-processed food products are usually packaged attractively and marketed intensively.
For example, roasted peanuts fall into Group 1. Add salt to them and they fall into Group 3. Add “sea salt, spices (contains celery), dried onion, dried garlic, paprika, natural flavor, sugar, gelatin, torula yeast, cornstarch, dried corn syrup, maltodextrin” to them, as Planters does, and they fall into Group 4 … making them, by design, difficult to eat just a few.
The Open Food Facts website is a searchable database. It’s still young but has over 800,000 products. Try it! (I just looked up Cheerios and Silk Soymilk: both NOVA Group 4 – to be avoided.)