The NOVA Food Classification System Explained

NOVA is a system by which foods (and food products) are classified by their degree of processing and the purpose for processing, into one of four groups. It is not an acronym, it is just a name. So we thankfully don’t have to try and remember what it stands for.

How does NOVA classify foods?

Group 1 represents the unprocessed or minimally processed foods and includes edible parts of plants and animals which are either eaten directly after removal from nature (raw) or have had some minor level of processing performed to make them edible such as roasting, boiling, and pasteurisation. 

Group 2 refers to processed culinary ingredients – think oils, syrups, preserves and butter – these are substances obtained from Group 1, but with higher degrees of processing to make products that are used in the kitchen to cook with. The general recommendation then is to make Group 1 foods the basis of your diet using Group 2 foods in small amounts for seasoning and cooking.

As we increase the level of processing towards Groups 3 and 4 however we enter troubled waters. 

Group 3 are plain and simple – processed foods. These will be made from a collection of Group 1 and 2 foods. They contain a handful of ingredients but the process employed is for the purpose of increasing the durability and sensory qualities of the Group 1 and 2 foods. Here we are thinking smoked or cured meats, canned fruits and vegetables, cheeses and breads – and for those waiting to see where beer wine and ciders sit – they are right here as products of fermentation.

Group 4 are the ultra-processed products. A subtle note here that the word “food” is intentionally dropped from the group heading by the NOVA creators. These are industrial formulations typically with 5 or more ingredients. The ingredient list might look like there are Group 1 foods present, but they no longer represent anything like the way nature intended. The ingredients list here reads like a who’s who of chemistry’s rich and famous. Additives whose main purpose is to either mimic the qualities of Group 1 foods or to disguise the bitter taste the many “preservatives”, “emulsifiers” and “humectants” (whatever they are!?) that have been packed into the product possess. Some of the more common Group 4 product examples are supermarket breads, breakfast cereals, muesli bars and packet sauces and many of the frozen reheat meal options.

Which groups of foods should we be consuming? 

The general recommendation in regard to these groups is to consume Group 3 sparingly. They can be consumed in small amounts and as part of a meal based around Groups 1 and 2 but only on occasion. Group 4 however, are to be avoided. That’s it. Just avoid them.

Can ultra-processed foods be healthy?

The avoidance of processed products is far more easily said than done. For the most part, well over a third of our diet comes from products in this group. And more concerning is that many of the Group 4 products can be found with a healthy-looking 5 stars, low GI, tick of approval! These products are aggressively marketed, displace Group 1 foods from our daily diets and have a huge negative impact on our health. In a recent analysis of over 100,000 French adults, compared to those that reported consuming at least one-fifth of their diet from Group 4, overall cancer risk was increased in those consuming higher amounts of Group 4 products.

Progressively, nutritionists around the world are beginning to re-frame their understanding of healthy diets in the context of NOVA classifications. The good news is, we do not have to completely re-invent wheels here. We can look to a number of very popular dietary patterns in the community today as examples that are fundamentally built on diets of Group 1 and 2 foods.

Further reading:

NOVA. The star shines bright. World Nutrition Volume 7, Number 1-3, January-March 2016 [PDF]


Dr. Kieron Rooney completed his PhD in the Department of Biochemistry, within the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney. Kieron’s primary interest focuses on conducting research and using this research to educate others on how what we eat, influences our metabolism.