NOVA as seen by a cook and a food scientist

Linn Steward, a trained chef and RDN, wrote a post on this blog in March. Since then we have engaged in a running discussion on various food topics. I value her comments and consider her my muse. The most contentious topic we have discussed is on the NOVA classification of foods. She finds the classification useful as a guide when she cooks. I find the scheme, particularly when it comes to Group 4, ultra-processed food, to be arbitrary and capricious. Below is an edited version of some of our online conversations. We still hold to many of our original beliefs, but we have come to appreciate each other’s perspective through this continuing conversation. Before we get started let me introduce NOVA (not an acronym).

Introduced in Brazil by Dr. Carlos Monteiro in 2016, the NOVA classification of foods divides foods and their products into four groups:

          Group 1 (G1) Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

          Group 2 (G2) Processed culinary ingredients

          Group 3 (G3) Processed foods

          Group 4 (G4) Ultra-processed foods

In this dialogue I will take the position of The Food Scientist and Linn the position of The Cook.

The Food Scientist:

We have skirted the topic in our previous discussions, but have generally avoided our disagreement on ultra-processed foods (G4). First it is my contention that it is not about the process that makes an ultra-processed food but the ingredients.

The Cook:

I have a hard time separating means (process) from ends (ingredient). But for the purposes of our discussion, let’s use the concept of ingredients.

Cooking requires physical involvement with ingredients. Perhaps that is why it’s easier for people who cook to relate to the 4 NOVA food groups.

For example, I prepared a mostly homemade meat sauce last night. I started out with a small piece of skirt steak (G1) cut up by hand into little pieces. I added a dozen mushrooms (G1), some unsalted chicken broth (G3), tomato paste (G3), and Rao’s Marinara (G4).  My meat sauce was served over tagliatelle (G1), a durum wheat semolina pasta boiled in salted water. For greens, we had rapini / broccoli raab (G1) braised in garlic (G1) and olive oil (G2).

bottle of marinara sauce
Rao’s Homemade Marinara Sauce – good alternative when you can’t make your own Photo by Linn Steward

Rao’s Marinara Sauce is a durable, accessible, convenient, and highly palatable ready to heat product. I use Rao’s because the ingredients (8 or 12 depending on how you count) read closest to what I use for my own home-made version.

The meal I’ve described is freshly prepared with mostly minimally processed ingredients but includes items from other NOVA groups. Practically speaking, many if not most home cooks use foods from all four groups. The difference is most ingredients are minimally processed and the contribution of ultra-processed foods is comparatively low.

The Food Scientist:

tee shirt with a bulldog dressed up as a scientist
Trust Me . . . I’m a Food Scientist

What distinguishes processed from ultra-processed to a food scientist is the scale of operations, where it is done, and the ingredients. The easiest way to separate G3 from G4 is the ingredients. And all of these additives that move a processed food from G3 to G4 are approved by the FDA.   

The Cook:

The NOVA groups are squishy. Rao’s is clearly a processed food but no additives are listed as ingredients. Maybe I should reconsider and classify the product as G3?

The Food Scientist:

Part of the problem may be a difference in terminology. I have no doubt in my technological mind that the goal of Michael Pollan in his defense of food and Carlos Monteiro in NOVA is to bring down industrial processing, but most of the techniques in use today have been around for over 100 years. The main example of a modern technique in widespread use today is high-pressure processing used to process the hummus and guacamole products in the round containers at your nearest supermarket. I taught Food Processing using Food Processing Technology by PJ Fellows. Among the many processes he describes include mixing and forming, separation and concentration, canning, dehydration, baking, roasting, frying, freezing, all of which are old technologies and common in-home food preparation.

The Cook:

I agree certain food activists want to “bring down industrial processing”. I’m not a big Michael Pollan fan for just that reason. I feel he has used NOVA to advance an anti-Big Food agenda. In my opinion, NOVA has more to offer. Even Carlos Monteiro says that processed food per se is not the problem. Processing is a necessity of culinary life. From my perspective, food science should be the food lover’s best friend. I’m especially concerned that the current conversation casts food science and food processing as the enemy.

The Food Scientist: 

I would love to see more collaboration between food scientists, chefs, nutritionists, and dietitians, but the gulf is so wide these days. Your proposal is one that has been endorsed by a journalist and a highly regarded food scientist. They both suggest that the two most important goals in food innovation is to make products more sustainable and healthier. We’ll leave sustainability for a later discussion, but making foods healthier is not as easy as it sounds. The movement against processed food is tying the hands of food scientists. Food scientists are particularly concerned about limiting FDA-approved food additives to achieve these goals. McClements also suggests that people can even abuse healthy foods by eating too much of them. 

The Cook:

That all depends on what you mean by healthy. The word is currently in regulatory free fall with nowhere to land.

The Food Scientist:

box of whole-grain, brown-rice pilaf
Convenient, quick, tasty. But is it healthy?

I agree that it is difficult to define healthy. It is also difficult to define unhealthy, but that doesn’t stop from critics to declare all ultra-processed food unhealthy. It also doesn’t stop them from implying that all fresh, whole foods and all home-prepared foods are healthy. So how do food manufacturers produce healthy foods?

The Cook:

That’s a good question. From my cook’s perspective, eating healthy is easy. A freshly prepared meal is the kind of healthy that works for me. Most of the ingredients I use are minimally processed, but I use ingredients from all four groups.

From my dietitian’s perspective, however, healthy eating is anything but easy. So many problems. Human nutrition is a new field of study; scientific consensus on what constitutes healthy remains elusive. Food manufacturers can’t stay in business unless the product sells. Most consumers want convenience and taste so healthy won’t sell if consumers don’t like how the product tastes or if it requires too much work.

The Food Scientist:

To me NOVA is all about the ingredients–not numbers but about additives. To manufacture a food in a plant, with labeling restrictions placed on them by the government, it is almost impossible to produce a processed food with five or less ingredients unless it is a whole food that has been canned, frozen or dried. Note the same restrictions do not apply to food prepared in a restaurant or in the home. Such is the genius of Pollan and Monteiro in devising such a scheme. I don’t see any distinction of safety of these food additives, most of which have been around since before passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906. It is much easier to rebut the assertions about the dangers of a single additive such as the recent condemnation of lactic acid but it is much harder to challenge a simple restriction of any food with more than five ingredients. Lactic acid, for example, is produced in many fermented foods such as pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt.

The Cook:

I am as critical of the 5-ingredient rule as you, but for different reasons.

The 5-ingredient rule is simplistic. Anyone can count to five. But as Einstein put it, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything than can be counted counts.” Highly processed clean labeled junk food gets a pass while a quality product like my Rao’s Marinara (12 ingredients) is scrutinized.

Rao’s is made with quality ingredients. Whole peeled tomatoes instead of tomato paste and diced tomatoes. Olive oil instead of a less expensive oil. And significantly less sodium per 100 grams than commodity competitors. Unfortunately the debate rarely gets down to this hands-on level. And it’s precisely this hands-on level where I find NOVA especially useful. Meals that are freshly prepared using mostly minimally processed ingredients taste better. I would argue these meals are also healthier but that’s a discussion for another day. What I value most however is we’re actually having a discussion. A rare and exciting occurrence in todays polarized environment.

bread pizza
Naan Pizza – basil pesto, marinara, boccicini, sliced red onion, grated parmiggiano Photo by Linn Steward

The Food Scientist:

I have a much better appreciation of why a cook is drawn to NOVA classification. I can see where it has some merit. I still do not believe that one can eliminate 61% of the American food supply by merely counting the number of ingredients present in a packaged food. Thank you for discussing this issue with me.

Next week: Ingredients revisited: Ultra-processed food, Random Chance, a possible mechanism

We congratulate The World Food Programme as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.







7 thoughts on “NOVA as seen by a cook and a food scientist

  1. Pollan writes as if we all had unlimited time and money (which are often competitive). We all have different abilities to taste, and different needs for its importance. If a barbecuer burns a food, it will taste “better” than if he get a burned food served in a restaurant. The fish we catch taste better than the fish we buy. And to the thrifty, the lower the price the less important the taste.


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