The Weekly Vlog

Limitations of the NOVA Processed Foods Classification System

Apr 05, 2023

In 2009, Brazilian researchers came up with the NOVA classification system to determine the level of processing of any food. 

Level 1 is whole, real food, minimally altered. Level 2 is culinary ingredients. Level 3 contains combinations of level 1 and 2 foods; this includes things like baked goods, multi-ingredient homemade dishes, etc. Level 4 is reserved for ultra-processed, packaged foods made of factory ingredients. 

On its surface, this system is really helpful. But a study just came out that examined the inter-rater reliability of NOVA category assignments. In the study, they asked food and nutrition experts to assign foods to the categories. Alas, they found that, even with a food as simple as plain yogurt, arguments could be made to classify it as level 1, level 3, or level 4. And foods as different as canned green beans and grape jelly are both categorized as level 3 foods, though their nutritional value and amount of processing of the ingredients couldn’t be more different. 

My hope is that someone develops a better, more effective, more reliable rating system. But the NOVA system is already widely accepted, and there’s so much ignorance and confusion about food in general these days that I doubt it will happen any time soon.

Click here to listen to this episode on Bright Line Living™ - The Official Bright Line Eating Podcast.

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is a New York Times bestselling author and an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of eating.  Susan is the Founder and CEO of Bright Line Eating®, a scientifically grounded program that teaches you a simple process for getting your brain on board so you can finally find freedom from food.

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